OPINION: HBCUs are good for your health

Black students discuss why attending historically black college and university was right choice

Kyla Emory’s first introduction to a historically black college and university (HBCU) came from watching reruns of “A Different World.” That spinoff of “The Cosby Show” set at a fictional HBCU left her dreaming of attending a predominantly Black college.

But years later, when she began actively considering her higher education, she put that dream on the back burner.

“I heard about how HBCUs don’t get as much money and may not prepare you for the real world,” said Emory, 18, a Chicago-area native.

Still, she applied and was accepted to Spelman College, Howard and Hampton Universities along with 12 other elite schools including Dartmouth, Georgetown and Northwestern.

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During campus visits to several of the predominately white institutions (PWIs), Emory talked to Black students about the decision she faced. “Each one of them told me to go to Spelman,” Emory said. Even the dean of one PWI advised her that if she didn’t attend that institution, her next best option was Spelman. So, she resurrected her middle school dream and moved south to Atlanta.

“I felt like Spelman was a place that I could call home. On the other campuses … I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. Here, all you see is yourself and you see yourself in different forms,” she said.

Black students are clear on the reasons they have chosen to attend an HBCU over a PWI, including a welcoming campus climate, lower costs and stronger bonds with faculty and students. But less known are the health impacts that extend well beyond college years into midlife.

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For Black students, attending an HBCU may be life-preserving. HBCU attendance was associated with a 35% reduction of midlife metabolic syndrome among all college-educated Black Americans, according to a 2020 study from Ohio State University.

Study authors posited that Black students who spend those years of self-discovery in a predominantly Black environment may not be consistently exposed to racial discrimination that can diminish mental and physical health.

“This finding underscores the important role that place, in general, and segregation, specifically, plays in the unequal distribution of health,” study researchers wrote.

Maureen Wood of Rockdale County has seen the trend in her own family. Wood, 41, and her husband both attended HBCUs. Her parents attended a PWI and her in-laws attended an HBCU.

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While her parents have suffered several metabolic diseases, there has been nothing of the sort for her in-laws. “I never thought about it that way. I thought it was more about heredity,” said Wood when I shared the OSU study with her.

When her daughter, an aspiring environmental engineer, was accepted to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other highly ranked engineering schools, Wood thought MIT was a done deal. Instead, her daughter chose Howard University.

“I said, ‘There is something about this place that you should trust,’” said Gabrielle Wood, 19, a sophomore in the Karsh Stem Scholars program for underrepresented students in science fields. “I came to a community where I could be more than the smart kid. Because you are not the only Black person, you don’t feel like you have to represent for your race or fit into a stereotype. You can just be yourself.”

I did not attend an HBCU. My Silent Generation parents did because, prior to the 1960s, more than 90% of Black people with college degrees were educated at HBCUs. They didn’t have much choice.

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Once PWIs began integrating, Black students who sought the same opportunities as their white peers applied and attended, leaving many HBCUs saddled with low enrollment and limited resources.

Ironically, a few HBCUS no longer offer the promise of learning in an environment that is predominantly Black. Two HBCUs in West Virginia — Bluefield State College and West Virginia State — have student bodies that are 85% and 61% white respectively, according to U.S. News & World Report.

It’s unclear how the school populations shifted so dramatically in just a few decades, but it has created the kind of environment that many Black students hope to avoid.

The feeling that something wasn’t quite right hit Steven Adams II when he toured Bucknell University as part of the Posse Scholars program which pairs top colleges and universities with students who might be overlooked in the traditional application process.

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“I didn’t really enjoy my experience visiting the school,” said Adams of Washington, D.C. “I said, ‘I would rather bank on myself and try to figure out college on my own.’”

Adams had a completely different experience when he visited — and ultimately enrolled at — Morehouse College. Before he was accepted, alumni reached out to offer advice and mentoring. As a student, when he skipped a class, the professor emailed and told him despite his stellar grades he needed to show up. During summers working at large investment firms, Morehouse graduates served as his workplace mentors.

He turned down a full scholarship to Bucknell but applied for more than 100 scholarships to pay his tuition, room and board at Morehouse. Now a senior, the future venture capitalist said he found his footing at this HBCU. “It has given me the stability I needed to take off,” said Adams.

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Finding a place where they feel seen, heard and valued is critical to every students’ well-being, especially during the formative college years. But a true measure of success for Black students is when they feel free to choose the academic institution that best suits them.

“For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions,” wrote journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, last year when she declined an offer of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.”

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