I’ll never forget one of the final conversations I had with my high school career counselor.
He’d advised me through four years of Cambridge and AP classes, SAT and ACT prep courses, seven rigorous college applications, countless scholarship applications and, eventually, seven equally attractive college acceptance letters.
It was down to the wire: March of my senior year and I had yet to decide where I was going to college or how I was going to pay for it. Despite many “generous” financial aid packages, it looked as though I would have to take out a loan to help pay for school.
The day before one of our last “college readiness” sessions of the year, an academic counselor from Florida A&M University, Florida’s only public historically black college or university and the largest single-campus HBCU in the United States, had approached me in my high school’s front office.
“How would you like a full scholarship to go to college?” he asked.
I thought it was a joke. Who drove for hours just to hand someone a letter with an offer for tens of thousands of dollars?
But it was real. I’d been tapped as a potential Presidential Scholar, a prestigious academic scholarship given to a select few at FAMU. I showed the letter to my counselor and asked him to be honest with me about the prospects for my academic and professional future should I choose to accept.
His pale blue eyes couldn’t meet mine. He shuffled papers on his desk, clicked his computer mouse and took several deep sighs.
“We can’t let you go to FAMU,” he said, his eyes glued to his desk. “We’ll keep looking. We’ll find you something. Anything. It’s not over. We just … we can’t let you go there. I can’t let you go there.”
That’s the stigma facing historically black colleges and universities nationwide: They’re for poor students, students who couldn’t get it together in high school and had no other options.
Who could blame them?
In the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for most HBCUs in the country, 29 HBCUs were placed on warnings between 1998 and 2013, according to a recent study conducted by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The 2013 report also showed that HBCUs receive less than 1 percent of federal research and development dollars for colleges and universities.
Beyond the financial shortages and academic challenges, HBCUs face another, larger issue: With 80 percent of their students black, HBCUs saw a 14 percent decline in overall enrollment in 2011.
Chatham University President Esther Barazzone cited similar challenges when the women’s college announced it would consider admitting men to its undergraduate program for the first time in its history.
She posted a letter on Chatham’s website addressing growing concerns from alumnae that the university was abandoning its mission to educate young women for the sake of finances.
“There is a very small market for women’s colleges, and we are not in the most opportune position to draw that market to us,” her letter read in part. “We are neither elite/well known nor heavily endowed; nor are we in an urban area with a whole array of applied programs that will draw a large number of students to us.”
In one statement, she summarized the numerous issues facing schools that specialize in educating a specific population.
I was 8 when I found out that my grandfather was illiterate. He and I were stopping to deposit a check at the local bank before returning home for a family dinner. I watched him struggle to slowly scratch his name on the back of a check with a shaky, disjointed handwriting similar to my own.
“Why does granddaddy write his name so funny,” I asked my mom later.
There was a long pause before she answered.
“Because that’s all he knows how to write,” she finally said.
I didn’t understand. My grandfather was a brilliant business man and financier, often profound in his insight and wisdom. He had been a successful farmer for most of his life, just like his father.
But he couldn’t read or write.
I was ashamed. Then came FAMU.
For the first time, my black history lessons weren’t centered around slaves, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Black history became American history, revealing black presence and contributions throughout the life of the nation in all aspects of society.
For the first time, I was surrounded by black professionals, academics and intellectuals consolidated into one small community. For the first time, I had a heavy arsenal of mentors ready to invest unlimited time and resources into ensuring I would succeed not just in college, but in life.
For the first time, I didn’t receive strange looks and awkward invasions of my personal space with requests to touch my hair every time I wore a natural hairstyle.
For the first time, I wasn’t the “go-to expert” on race relations as the only minority in classrooms full of white privilege and, quite often, cultural ignorance.
Most importantly, for the first time I felt part of something larger than myself. I felt a sense of loyalty, service and, most importantly, responsibility to give back even more than what was given to me to help those who stood next in line.
In four short years, my institution built me up and placed me on the shoulders of giants: LaSalle Leffall, Pam Oliver, John Thompson, Althea Gibson, Dawnie Walton, Cannonball Adderley and the countless others who came before me. If you don’t know who they are, Google them.
Despite their struggles with enrollment and finances, HBCUs still produce 18 percent of all black engineers, 31 percent of black biological scientists and mathematicians and 42 percent of black agricultural scientists, according to a Ford Foundation study conducted by MIT professor Phillip Clay.
FAMU alone graduates over 60 percent of black Ph.D. recipients in the four areas of the pharmaceutical sciences.
The question shouldn’t be what is the relevance of culturally sensitive educational institutions for targeted minorities, but rather, how can we help them succeed?
Keeping these schools alive isn’t a matter of self-segregation. It’s a matter of cultural survival.
Clarece Polke is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1889).