Norman Thomas III grew up hearing about only one college: Morehouse.

His father and grandfather graduated from the Atlanta HBCU. His father always wore Morehouse merchandise. And throughout his childhood, they talked to him about the power of the Morehouse brotherhood. 

Norman Thomas III followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when he enrolled at Morehouse College. (Photo: Courtesy of Norman Thomas III)

“I have pictures from when I was like a baby, in Morehouse gear, things like ‘A future Morehouse man,’” he said.

When it came time to apply to college, Thomas never considered going anywhere but an HBCU. And when he toured Morehouse, his decision was made. 

“The connection that you feel with the people around you impacts the way that you learn and the way that education impacts you,” he said. “Morehouse is a special place.” 

Thomas, now a sophomore at Morehouse College, is one example of a legacy student, someone who attends the institution from which a family member previously graduated. And while legacy admissions policies at predominantly white institutions have drawn scrutiny, the practice is still valuable at HBCUs, students and admissions experts say. 

Anthony Jones, the vice president of enrollment management at Bethune-Cookman University, said anecdotally he has seen the number of legacy applicants increasing at HBCUs in recent years. 

“The reality is that the majority of HBCUs need that legacy enrollment and welcome that legacy enrollment at their schools,” Jones said. 

Studies have found legacy students are more likely to accept offers of admissions, and families with multi-generational ties to an institution are more likely to donate there.

The power of legacy admissions at HBCUs stands in contrast to the use of legacy preferences at PWis. Critics say legacy admissions at selective PWIs disadvantage minority students — and some, including Wesleyan University, have ended their use of the practice. Legacy admissions are banned in Colorado. 

Not every HBCU takes family legacy into account in its admissions process. Alabama State University and Prairie View A&M University, for example, don’t consider the status, according to the institutions’ most recently available Common Data Sets. Howard University, Morehouse College, and Grambling State University, and Spelman College, for example, do consider it, but don’t give it extra weight.

Elycia Woodham is a senior studying music at Spelman College, where her mother graduated from in 1993. The ties don’t stop there: Her mother’s brothers went to Morehouse.

Woodham grew up embedded in HBCU culture — from meeting her mother’s old classmates, to attending homecoming and class reunions. 

Elycia Woodham is studying music at Spelman College, the alma mater of her mother, Maricia Woodham. (Photo: Courtesy of Elycia Woodham)

Despite the big push from her family,  Woodham did not want to go to Spelman initially because it felt too close to home. She also considered Howard, Virginia State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. 

But seeing the Glee Club sing during her Spelman campus tour sealed the deal. Going to Spelman is “the best decision I’ve made,” she said. 

“I think that Spelman just stood out. Even when I tried to imagine or consider other schools, I never got the same feeling of reassurance, knowing that if I went to Spelman, I was really going to come out the more elevated person that I am now,” she said.

Woodham sees legacies at HBCUs as something broader than the literal term. To her, a student at an HBCU is not only continuing the legacy of family members that went there, but in a broader sense, they are also continuing the legacy of the class before them and of anyone who believed in them.

A changing narrative

One factor in children choosing to attend an HBCU, like other family members before them, is because according to Jones, in the past, “if you were talented, and you were Black, your choice was to be at an HBCU.”

Jones credits “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” with changing the narrative around the HBCU college experience. According to him, these two shows “encouraged the idea that one could go to an HBCU, have a credible experience, come out and be successful.”

HBCU enrollment increased by 26% between 1976 and 1994, with most of the growth occurring between 1986 and 1994, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“There was a saying called ‘The Blacker the college, the sweeter the knowledge,’ that was happening back then,” Jones said.

Forging their own path

Some students still choose to take a different path. 

Virginia native Riley Mensah attended North Carolina A&T — her father’s alma mater — for one year before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is a junior crafts and material studies student. 

She felt N.C. A&T lacked the resources she needed as an out-of-state student, citing issues with class flexibility, advising, and housing.

“If everything was solid and fixed and perfect, and they had an art program and everything, I would have stayed at A&T. It was just a resource issue overall,” she said.

Economics student Bryson Ellis goes to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, though his parents attended South Carolina State. The “prestige” of UNC persuaded Ellis and his parents that it was a better fit, he said. 

For Mensah, attending an HBCU even briefly helped put her on a solid foundation. 

“It’s a cultural thing to attend an HBCU just to basically feel like you’re a part of this family,” she said. “An HBCU allows a Black person to exhale.”

Rosegalie Cineus is a fellow with the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus