Historically black colleges see rise in enrollment

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It happened to Jeremiah Wheeler when he was a high school freshman and visiting a dozen black colleges around the country during a weeklong bus tour.

Jenevea Wheeler says Howard University in Washington, D.C., pushes her to do her best. Her brother, Jeremiah Wheeler, of Detroit, plans to enroll there this fall.

While at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he saw the people and campus, heard about the programs, felt the culture. And he just knew it.

"The feeling was simply, this is where I want to be," said Wheeler, a senior at Communication and Media Arts High School in Detroit who plans to enroll at Howard this fall. "And that feeling really is a mutual feeling of the people around me. It's a feeling of welcome, it's a feeling of home, it's a feeling of a wanted challenge, and you're learning every second that you are on campus."

With the college application season underway, Wheeler is among many local students who plan to leave Michigan to attend one of the nation's historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs.

Renewed interest in the schools comes in the wake of last year's Supreme Court decision that upheld affirmative action bans in college admissions in Michigan and other states.

Student activists also say the climate can feel less-than-welcoming at large public schools like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, where African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of enrollment.

Enrollment at HBCUs rose 4.5 percent between 2002 and 2012, the last year for which federal statistics are available.

Once the only option for African-Americans to earn a degree, the 105 institutions matter more than ever to some students who speak of mentorship, high expectations and a celebration of black culture that can't be found elsewhere.

"I feel like a historically black college would be somewhere to be surrounded by people of my same race and be empowered and to see other students like myself striving to be successful inside the classroom and outside of the classroom," said Southfield resident Adriane Roberson, who has been accepted at several HBCUs but is undecided where she will attend. "That's the environment I should be in, and need to be in."

Added Howard University-bound Kendra Renee Sanders, a senior at the Detroit School of Arts: "(At) HBCUs, I love the fact that it's a place where it not only is black excellence, but there are all these people there. They're your competition, but they want to bring you up with them. That's something that a lot of other schools don't have."

But some black students would just prefer to go to a black college, and it has nothing to do with the climate on majority white campuses.

For Ishmael Muhammad of Farmington Hills, it's the high graduation rate of black medical students at Xavier University of Louisiana as he considers enrolling there. For Kyla Wright of Southfield, it's the journalism program at Hampton University in Virginia that has sparked her interest.

HBCUs were set up after the Civil War, when a large population of African-Americans were uneducated, said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education in the graduate school of the University of Pennsylvania. At the time, they were the only option for black students.

Most other institutions of higher learning would not enroll black students until the mid-1960s. The civil rights movement opened a range of choices for black students, but not without a cost. Though integration into white institutions meant strides in equality, it also led to the loss of students at historically black colleges, Gasman said.

While college enrollment overall has grown over the past half-century, historically black schools have seen smaller gains. Since the early 1980s, HBCU enrollment rose more than 30 percent, but overall college/university enrollment surged 66 percent, according to federal statistics.

Some black colleges have struggled to attract students and stay solvent. For instance, Michigan's only historically black college — Detroit's Lewis College of Business — closed in 2013 after offering a business education since 1928.

A few other black colleges are fighting to stay open, Gasman said. For instance, Barber-Scotia College in Concord, N.C., has less than two dozen students enrolled, the school confirmed last week. "Despite what appears to be insurmountable challenges, the college continues to be poised for revitalization that is proactive," a statement on the school's website proclaims.

Yet a half-century after the civil rights movement, the mission of historically black institutions remains critical, Gasman said.

"They offer a choice that is really important to some students who need an enriching environment that does not call into question their relevance based on race," she said.

Some students, however, find the colleges difficult to afford, even though many get scholarships to help defray costs, which vary.

Jasmine Byrd, a Southfield native, went to Howard for her first year, but then her parents could no longer afford to pay the $40,000 in annual costs at the private university.

"It matured me a lot, it opened my eyes," said Byrd, who is now attending Oakland Community College, where she's studying business. "I was pretty devastated when I couldn't return. But everything happens for a reason — it worked out for me in the end."

Detroit is a hotbed for alumni of the many black colleges. Last month, Tennessee State University President Glenda Baskin Glover attended a fundraiser at the University District home of Sanders' father, a TSU alum, to raise money for scholarships.

Meanwhile, the Detroit alumni chapter of Morehouse College in Atlanta unveiled a mentoring partnership this month with Detroit Public Schools' Douglass Academy for Young Men.

The goal, said Franklin Wilkerson, is to encourage students to attend his alma mater, another black college — or any institution of higher learning.

"The inspiration behind all of this is we've been sitting around for too long and listening to all the negative statistics, particularly those of us who have been successful," said Wilkerson, president of the Detroit Morehouse alumni chapter. "We are trying to draw a line in the sand."

Race has been an issue on Michigan college campuses for decades. In the 1970s, the Black Action Movement staged protests at the University of Michigan, calling on the university to speed integration by admitting more African-Americans.

Around the same time, the Black Student Alliance emerged at Michigan State University, organizing sit-ins, boycotts and other activities to promote minority enrollment and awareness of African-American issues.

With black enrollment down at the state's two largest universities since the affirmative action ban was passed in 2006, frustration boiled into fresh protests at UM last year. In November, civil rights demonstrators shut down a Regents meeting, demanding greater diversity on the Ann Arbor campus.

For Daijah Hills — a Taylor resident whose top two choices are Howard and Spelman College in Atlanta — the allure of a historically black college is partly about the education she will get and partly about the people she will meet.

"It's like you're home away from home," Hills said. "You build relationships with people far beyond what you can imagine. The atmosphere at an HBCU is more like a family than people you just go to school with."

Jenevea Wheeler, Jeremiah's sister and a sophomore at Howard in Washington, D.C., can attest to the environment that high school seniors envision at HBCUs.

"They really push you to be your best," Wheeler said.