Doris Mackins had been retired for more than a decade when she decided to return to Coppin State University to finish her degree in 2022. 

The 68-year-old said her decision to return to higher education was a spontaneous one — she was excited by the opportunity. This semester, Mackins is completing her last 12 credits before obtaining her interdisciplinary studies degree — more than 45 years after she first enrolled.

She’s one of many women of color nationwide returning to college in hopes to complete the degree they once started. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) across the country play an important role in this trend.

About 110,000 Black women with some college credits but no degree returned to college in 2020, nearly double the number of Black men, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

That pattern was true for other minority groups — 63.5% of minority women re-enrolled, versus 34.6% of minority men, according to the data. The report is the first time that the data-tracking nonprofit has released information on re-enrollment numbers broken down by race and gender. 

Two reasons for the trend: the gender pay gap — women earned 82% of what men earned last year — and racial discrimination that holds back women of color in the workforce. Those patterns push women of color back into the classroom, as they seek a path to higher income and a sense of community, according to some higher education experts. HBCUs in particular can play an important role in helping them achieve those goals. 

“HBCUs do a great job at welcoming students whose paths may not have been linear,” said Annie Reznik, the chief of staff at the Partnership for Education Advancement. 

“You’re a part of a group of students who would be well-positioned in an environment rooted in the idea that all students are deserving of an opportunity to receive an education,” she said, adding that many women see a college degree as a tool to reduce wage disparities.

The data isn’t quite so straightforward. While college-degree holders generally earn more than those without a bachelor’s degree, the Black-white racial wage gap increased at every level of educational attainment from 2000 to 2018.

Multiple HBCUs — including Bowie State University and Savannah State University — declined to comment on efforts to draw “some college, no degree” students back to the classroom. Others, such as Langston University and Florida A&M University, said they don’t keep separate data on re-enrollees. 

A college degree decades in the making

When Mackins first enrolled as an early education major in 1975, the Baltimore HBCU was still known as Coppin State College. Mackins had grown up in the city and had seen many members in the community attend and work at Coppin, which she believes inspired her to attend. 

Doris Mackins at Coppin State. (Photo: Courtesy of Doris Mackins)

While she enjoyed her first stint at the college, Mackins began feeling the limitations of being a college student. She wanted the freedom that she felt many of her friends found outside of school.  

“My friends were beginning to move into their own apartments and they were driving. I was still catching the bus to and from school with my $3 a day. I just felt like I wanted to move on,” she said.

Mackins dropped out during her sophomore year. It took her three decades of working in the Baltimore circuit courts and over a decade of retirement before she decided to go back to school. Her 17-year-old niece’s decision to go to college served as a motivator of sorts.

“When I decided to return to college last semester, the thought came to me and I just acted on it. No preparations were made…I always thought about coming back to Coppin State. I never thought it would take me 45 years,” she said.

Putting college on hold, protecting mental health

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted Amari Smith’s much-anticipated freshman year at Spelman College. She struggled to adjust to campus life while taking classes entirely online. She was more than 600 miles away from her family in Washington, D.C., who dealt with many problems while she was away. 

Constantly worried about her family and her grades, Smith’s mental health began to suffer.

“I couldn’t focus on school, it was hard for me to go to class, it was hard for me to get up and eat. It had nothing to do with Spelman,” she said. “That’s when I said ‘I need to take a break.’ Why would I pay when I’m not in the right space to do this the right way?” 

After speaking with her deans and adviser, Smith took a leave of absence in the fall of her junior year. During her time away from Spelman, Smith worked a job, took a few courses at a local community college and began going to therapy —  decisions she said put her in a better headspace to return this spring. 

“Now that I’m back, I definitely do feel like my mind is a lot stronger and a lot of the little things that I was doing before in my routine that were not helping me as a person, aren’t there anymore because of therapy,” Smith said. 

“With Black women, there’s this notion that we always have to work hard, we always have to be better. I think that’s mentally draining. If you feel like your performance is going to tank academically because of the way you’re feeling, then take a break,” she added. 

Smith’s experience is common for Black women, said Nadrea R. Njoku, the director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute (FDPRI) at the United Negro College Fund.

“I think Black women continue to believe that higher education is their best low-risk pathway to creating higher income and social mobility for themselves and their families,” Njoku said.

‘So many variables’

Many HBCUs said they don’t keep re-enrollment figures separate in their enrollment statistics. Howard University, a private HBCU located in Washington, D.C., does, however. In fall 2022, 188 students re-enrolled at Howard, a 28% decrease compared to the year prior where 250 former students had returned to the university. 

Oliver Street, the associate vice president of enrollment management at Howard, said it’s a good sign that figure is on the decline.

“You don’t want that number to be high,” Street said. “The better our retention rates are, the better our graduation rates are, the lower our former student returning numbers should be.”

Students in a classroom in Howard University’s Douglass Hall (Photo: Demetrick Conyers/The Hilltop)

Street has also worked in enrollment management at universities such as George Washington University and Harvard University.

Women make up the majority of students at Howard overall — they are 70% of the undergraduate population, and account for 59% of former students returning. 

Njoku explained that re-enrollment numbers largely fluctuate depending on the accessibility of the college. The National Student Clearinghouse found that of students who return to college to get a degree, 67% enrolled at different institutions.

There is no specific enrollment strategy the university uses to target a specific demographic, in this case, returning students. While data can highlight trends, it does not show the causal relationship, Street said. 

“There’s so many variables and we’re human beings — not all of them can be explained by data. Some of them are explained by homesickness, that’s not going to show up in any data set that we have,” he said. “The numbers are not always going to tell the story.”

 Jasper Smith is an inaugural fellow in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus. Support the program here.

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 capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalBNews

Jasper is a junior journalism major at Howard University.