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HBCUs see a historic jump in enrollments

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After struggling through two years of COVID restrictions, colleges and universities are welcoming students back to campuses. But some students are making very different choices about which campuses to attend or whether to attend at all. Black students in particular seem to be changing the way they think about college and the kind of experiences they want to have. The number of Black students in higher education decreased overall during the pandemic. But for those who did choose college, some historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have seen a surge in applications. Morgan State University in Baltimore, for example, reported a 58% increase in undergraduate applications in 2021 compared to 2019. That's an historic high.

To understand why some black students and their families are returning to historically Black colleges and universities, we called Walter Kimbrough. He has a long history of leadership at HBCUs. He was president of Philander Smith College from 2004 to 2012 and president of Dillard University for 10 years until this past year. Now he's heading to another historically Black college, Morehouse, to become academic administrator and interim executive director of the Black Men's Research Institute.

Professor Kimbrough, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WALTER KIMBROUGH: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: So HBCUs got a publicity bump with Vice President Kamala Harris, who graduated from Howard. Previously - I don't know if people remember this - "A Different World" - it was a sitcom spinoff from "The Bill Cosby Show" - also brought, you know, attention to these kinds of institutions. But how have these institutions been viewed? And has that perception changed over time?

KIMBROUGH: Right. So early on, HBCUs were the critical providers of Black professionals and particularly your teachers, your doctors, your lawyers, your ministers. They came out of that HBCU tradition. So that was very important. So people really looked to those institutions, and really, prior to the, I guess, in the early 1960s, any African Americans who had a degree, about 95% of them went to HBCUs because pretty much those were your only options. So people had a high regard for HBCUs for most of the history. I think then when people had a chance to go to different types of institutions, people said, well, we don't have to have those institutions anymore. So it dropped from about 95% to maybe about five years or six years ago, I think the low point was about 8%.

MARTIN: Eight percent.

KIMBROUGH: So there was a mass drop-off - 8%.

MARTIN: You wrote an op-ed in 2016 in The Washington Post about something you called the Missouri Effect. So tell me about this Missouri Effect.

KIMBROUGH: Right. So in the fall of 2015, there was a national story about Black students at the University of Missouri that protested just their conditions on campus, how they were being treated, African Americans. So the chancellor of that system and the president of that campus both resigned as a part of that. And then over the course of the next year, going into 2016, you saw Black students all across the country saying, we want more Black faculty and staff and, you know, more Black studies courses, all those kinds of things.

So people were having those kinds of, you know, questions and answering that, and people were saying, why are we trying to recreate everything when HBCUs were created to do these things? They provide you with the role models that you're looking for. They provide you with the curriculum that you're looking for. And so I started to see more interest and more stories of people from HBCUs saying, hey, we're seeing some growth.

Now, over the past 12 years, there has been a decline every year in terms of people who are going to higher education. So there are still fewer students at HBCUs now than there were in 2015. But when I looked at the numbers, the latest numbers we have are from 2020. All of higher education contracted at about 5%. HBCUs contracted at 4.8%, so a little bit less. But the big issue is that Black students from 2015 to 2020 dropped 11%.

So the largest group from where HBCUs draw from dropped a great deal, and yet HBCU didn't drop as much. So that means there were fewer Black students who were going to higher education, but more were saying, if I am going, I'm going to an HBCU. And that's why we start to see the percentage of Black students going to HBCUs start to tick back up.

MARTIN: Is this renaissance - if we can use that term - is that across the board, or is that at the most high-profile institutions like Morehouse, like Spelman, like Howard?

KIMBROUGH: It's been uneven. It has been uneven. So there are still some HBCUs that people don't know anything about, that don't get the same kind of airtime, if you will. And so those institutions are still trying to figure out, how do we ride this wave?

MARTIN: How do you feel about this? Is it bittersweet, in a way, that the - a rise in what I think many young people, many people experience as a rise of anti-Black racism contributing to this renewed interest in HBCUs? I mean, it's - how are you thinking about all that?

KIMBROUGH: You know, I grew up in Atlanta, so I went to Atlanta public schools. We're 99% Black, so I was in all-Black spaces my entire time. But you see a different, you know, group of students. I mean, both of my kids are in schools where, at least my son, he was in the great minority for most of his education. But they're in different spaces now where they're saying they're seeing this at the high school level, even at the middle school level. At my son's school last year, they had a racial incident, and he was in the seventh grade. And so they're seeing enough of that. They're just like, I don't want to deal with it. The parents want them to feel safe. And so that becomes, as people talk about safe spaces, HBCUs become that for a lot of those students.

MARTIN: There are those who might argue that that sort of creates a false picture of the world, that is it really to the benefit of Black students to be in an environment that is unlikely to be like their professional environments that they're in unless they're in certain spaces? What do you say to that? I don't know if any parents have ever discussed that with you while they're sort of touring and sort of deciding what choices to make for their students. But what do you say to that?

KIMBROUGH: Yeah. I - you know, I think there are there have always been people who say, well, HBCUs aren't the real world. And I guess the broader picture is if we're looking at the broader world, the United States doesn't look like the real world. So I mean, we're going to talk about the world - we don't look like that either. So, you know, I think that there is some value in being at an HBCU because I think there's a greater level of diversity that people don't always appreciate. And they just feel like, well, most of your student body is Black.

It's like, yeah, but look at the faculty. The faculties are much more diverse. And I think there are some other skills that people learn in terms of dealing with different people. Then I don't think you go to that place that's in the middle of the cornfields in Iowa and ask for all these Black faculty and all these Black things when that's not what it was created for. And I'm realistic. So I just tell people to have a realistic expectation if you go to a place like that and value it for what it is. And if these other things are very important to you, you need to look at an HBCU.

MARTIN: Walter Kimbrough served as president of both Philander Smith College and Dillard University. He will be the new interim executive director of the Black Men's Research Institute at Morehouse College.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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