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There are 117 colleges and universities in the United States that are designated as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs); that is, they were founded with the mission of educating black men and women. They range from highly competitive universities offering undergraduate and graduate programs to noncompetitive two-year colleges with open admissions. Affordable and academically rigorous, they keep alive the history and traditions of the African-American experience while at the same time welcoming an increasing number of students of other races and backgrounds into their community.

A growing trend
Today’s African-American students can attend college anywhere their grades, talents and interests take them. Yet increasingly they’re looking at HBCUs because they want the unique experience that only such institutions offer. In fact, “The last few years have seen a resurgence in HBCU enrollment”, comments Lori Wright, coordinator of multicultural student recruitment at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Students tell her they are considering HBCUs not so much because of racial issues, but because they want to share their cultural heritage with students like themselves.

Reasons of the heart
“Being an HBCU student is a deeply emotional experience,” reflects Michael Tapscott, director of the office of minority student affairs at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. “For many black students who went to a majority high school and then come to an HBCU, it’s a real awakening.”

There were many reasons why Nabulungi Mack-Williams chose Spelman College in Atlanta. But a primary motivation was the knowledge that she’d be surrounded by people of her own culture who were successful in their fields. On a more personal level, she likes the family closeness that Spelman gives her. Reflecting on her years there, she says she particularly enjoyed being able to relate to financial aid advisers and professors as if they were wise aunts and uncles.

A link to a legacy
Some students come from families where several generations are HBCU graduates, which Thandabantu B. Maceo, director of admissions and interim financial aid director at Central State University, reports is often a big incentive for young people to want to experience an HBCU for themselves. “They see the value in continuing the tradition. There’s a feeling of pride and association with an institution that your own people created and helped develop. They know there’s a rich fraternal presence at an HBCU that can’t be experienced on a traditionally white campus,” says Maceo.

Mentors along the way
The connections that students make with their professors are part of the extensive mentoring facilitated by HBCUs. “This,” says Antoine M. Garibaldi, provost and chief academic officer at Howard University, “is a factor in the high percentage of HBCU graduates who go on for their doctorates. Students see role models all around them and know that faculty members will assist them in securing internships and prepare them for careers.”

Making the right decision
However, Frank Matthews, publisher and editor in chief of Black Issues in Higher Education, warns that parents and students can get caught up in the nostalgia of HBCUs. He urges applicants to do the basic research about the reputation of the campus in the community, among employers, and with the general population as well as the college’s graduation, retention, and placement rates. And, as with any college decision, there are many factors to take into consideration. “I don’t want students to come here just because Howard is an HBCU,” says Janice L. Nicholson, associate vice president for enrollment management at Howard University. She says that African-American students sometimes get so caught up in applying to an institution, they don’t realize it doesn’t even offer their major. “There’s no substitute for doing your homework about the campuses you’re seriously considering,” she says.

CHECKLIST
If the list of colleges you are thinking of applying to includes one or more HBCUs, keep these questions in mind:

* How will either an HBCU or a large majority university fit my goals and personal requirements?

* What is the reputation of each institution I’m considering?

* How do the curriculums compare among institutions?

* What is the job placement rate of graduates?

* What exposure will I have to my chosen career field?

* How do the facilities, labs, and technical capabilities match up?

* What are the networking opportunities at each institution?

* What is the student-professor ratio?

* Will my professor know me and be concerned about me?

* Will I be able to get a good internship?

A college visit is always a good idea. While on campus, ask current students the following:

* How does the college meet their expectations?

* What was the deciding factor that made them choose this school?

* What is residential life like on this campus?

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