Too often, media coverage of historically Black colleges and universities centers on tropes or repeats falsehoods.
The reality is that HBCUs are a powerful and historically undercovered sector of higher education. And in recent years, the sector has notched some critical victories: a surge in applications, additional federal funds aimed at addressing inequity, and a champion in the White House in Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard University graduate.
Still, misconceptions persist about the institutions and the students who attend them. The HBCU Student Journalism Network aims to change this. Our six HBCU reporting fellows asked students on their campuses: What do people misunderstand about HBCUs?
These conversations — in the students’ own words — have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Armani Pink, Southern University and A&M College
In high school, I held the misconception that I would miss out on opportunities [by attending] an HBCU, and I worried that I wouldn’t fit in because I don’t drink or love to party. I got the misconception from classmates and friends, as well some adults — like the guidance counselor and coaches.
Because of the misconceptions, I applied to and considered a lot of PWIs [predominantly white institutions] over HBCUs while in high school. I was almost certain that I wouldn’t go to an HBCU at one point, but luckily, my mind was changed. Everyone in my immediate family attended an HBCU, so I was able to pick their brains about their experience and get honest feedback and advice. My grandmother is a proud graduate of Southern University, and my grandfather was once a history professor here. My parents — both Southern graduates — actually met here on The Bluff. I watched both my older sister and older brother receive their bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from SU.
My professors are knowledgeable and get excited about helping me learn and master the material. If I desire any tools, resources, or opportunities that my HBCU or its faculty cannot provide, someone is always willing to give me information or direction needed to get access to it.
Also, there are so many different people from different places with different backgrounds here. I think it’d be difficult not to find a friend or group that makes you feel like you truly fit in and belong.
— Brittany Patterson
Jayla Bryant, Claflin University
I think what people get wrong about HBCUs, or HBCU students, is the reason why we attend HBCUs. They think that we’re all the same, and we fit in one box, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, we do have fun, and we do celebrate our culture. We represent Black excellence. Think about the history and meaning behind HBCUs: Black people were not allowed in their colleges and we took that power back.
I went to a predominantly white high school where I had an identity crisis because I was surrounded by so much whiteness. I didn’t fit in with the white people, and I didn’t fit in with my Black classmates because I wasn’t “Black enough” or “acted white”. In some cases, we come from majority white areas so we were always known as the “Black kid” and that was our identity growing up.
Going to an HBCU with people that look like us, we are able to shed that label. We’re able to find our individuality. I was able to stop my identity crisis and find out who I truly am.
I definitely think that “Claflin Confidence” is real. In high school I didn’t feel like I belonged. I can say that I belong here.
— Tyuanna Williams
Kamahl Grant, Morehouse College
It’s easy to sell someone on the fun of HBCUs but that’s not honestly the [only] aspect. It’s seeing so many brothers as like minded as me and so unique in the things they want to do in their careers, and it’s really being in an environment where iron truly sharpens iron. Truly I’m inspired by my classmates — they’re doing great things so I can’t stop doing great things either.
They say at HBCUs we lack the resources, but I’ve found that with the network that HBCUs have, you’re always going to be able to get yourself in a room that has the resources even if it’s not on your campus.
It’s hilarious when people try to belittle me for going to an HBCU. Clearly, the path I took worked out for me just fine. It’s going to continue to work out for me just fine because where I don’t have the resources I may meet an alumni, classmate or somebody younger. And, because of the brotherhood, they’re going to do everything in their power to see if they can assist me.
— Auzzy Byrdsell
Shane Appiah, Howard University
[An HBCU] is not a mystical place free from the contradictions that exist in any other institution of our society. I believe that HBCUs, like Black people as a whole, are assigned unrealistic expectations of character, such as being “too this” or “too that,” polarizing the complex nature of our people and spaces.
Professors and students alike come here believing in a lore told from those outside of the community about how the university is supposed to function. I’ve always been aware of the lore. It’s what first attracted me and so many others to the potential of Howard University. Though, upon being here, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the inflated narratives about an ideal Howard that made Howard so great, rather it’s the real people everyday who work to resolve these contradictions and create a stronger institution that make the community, amongst many other things, so special.
My friends have affirmed my place here, providing love and care throughout the precarious obstacles that college inevitably brings. My professors possess a kind of wisdom and experience that can not be found at any other university. The staff who serve me all the way from the cafeteria to my dorm engage me on a personal level which goes beyond what I’ve experienced at other institutions.
In reality, Howard is like any other university, in the sense that you will likely struggle navigating identity, relationships and finances. What makes this place special though, is the opportunity it presents to create anew, beyond the boundaries of what is typically understood of a college institution.
— Jasper Smith
Reggie King, Xavier University of Louisiana
I didn’t know until I attended an HBCU that the information people gave about them was false. People tried to make it seem like HBCUs are academically inferior to PWIs. However, this is not the case. Many HBCUs have a solid academic reputation and offer various programs and degrees. Additionally, HBCUs play a critical role in educating and empowering Black students and communities and have a rich history and culture that is often overlooked or undervalued.
Another stereotype is that HBCUs are only for Black students, which is also not true. HBCUs welcome students of all races and backgrounds, even though they are specifically designed to provide an educational and cultural experience that is tailored to the needs and experiences of Black students.
At first, I was skeptical about coming to an HBCU. I always wanted to go to UC Berkeley, but exactly what they shame HBCUs for doing, a top-tier PWI did to me. They gave me not even half the amount of their tuition to attend the school, and I felt disrespected.
But, when I received my acceptance from Xavier University, they offered to pay for everything I needed to attend there for free. I was shocked because, for an HBCU — somewhere they say never gives a lot of money to their students — they came through. After that moment, my entire experience at Xavier University of Louisiana changed my perspective on HBCUs.
Stereotypes dampen the light that HBCUs all over the country have to offer. It causes students from the Black culture to stray away from something built for them, which ultimately makes the schools lose out on funding and resources that could help the schools improve and support more students.
— Skylar Stephens
Elizabeth Duncan, Jackson State University
I don’t think people realize how much HBCUs prepare us for our future.
Oftentimes, HBCUs are underfunded. However, the students and professors work very hard, and we learn just as much. We produce great leaders — take Kamala Harris, for example. She’s an HBCU graduate and now the Vice President.
We’re often overlooked and underestimated by jobs because we’re products of HBCUs, and there’s never anything good education-wise broadcasted. Had my accomplishments been at a PWI for example, I’d be all over the local news.
I want to be a lawyer that specializes in intellectual property protection. I want to ensure that Black creators and their ideas are protected by copyright from publishers who tend to steal the ideas and whitewash it. JSU professors are helping me by giving insight — acknowledging that there isn’t just one specific need for lawyers in the Black community.
— Alivia Welch
Matthew Jackson, Morehouse College
The way it feels to be in our community is something you only get by being a part of it. There are people who will just come out to do stuff for you just by being associated with your school. That community is something you only can get at HBCUs. I guess some people envy that and that’s why you hear so much hate.
A lot of people on the outside just look at it like it’s just a bunch of Black kids having fun. Our hard work is really overlooked. These are schools with pedigree but we’re not the high level as Yale or Harvard — we are, but we’re not seen as that.
We get our flowers here and there, things do come through, but at the end of the day we’re always the hardest workers in the room. It’s to the point where at internships and stuff like that, all the HBCU students kind of gravitate toward each other. With that hard work mentality, we’re able to connect the most with people.
— Auzzy Byrdsell
Alani Williams, Claflin University
When it comes to HBCUs, people automatically think about D9 [the Divine Nine] and Greek life. I feel like that’s a big factor for people when they come to HBCUs, especially because of social media.
They don’t see all the opportunities we’ve been presented at HBCUs. We have more to offer. I chose Claflin because of a scholarship that I was awarded, but when I got here it became more than that. It wasn’t until I got to Claflin that I knew that math education was an actual degree. I thought I had to pursue a middle child education degree.
I felt happy that there was a specific major for what I want to do, which is to be a math teacher. It’s great that the curriculum is guiding me to be the best teacher that I can be. I feel like the curriculum really pushes me. Recently, we created a cyber security program that I am a part of — we traveled to a cyber security competition and are preparing for more.
— Tyuanna Williams
Byrdsell, Patterson, Smith, Stephens, Welch, and Williams are the inaugural fellows in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.
This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at atlanta.capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalB_ATL.