Written by Jacob Hood.

During my time filling out college applications, not once did “historically black college or university” seriously cross my mind. I was familiar with the likes of Howard, had heard passing notions of Morehouse, and knew vaguely of Prairie View. All institutions on my shortlist bore the titles of predominantly white institutions, or PWIs. Not a single historically black college or university, or HBCU, as they are commonly referred to within the community, made the cut. Upon coming to the University of Texas, my exposure to this PWI vs. HBCU debate intensified. Quickly, I began to see how representation on campus plays a formative hand in how people view the school around them.

To clarify, HBCUs are colleges originally founded prior to 1964 to serve the educational needs of black Americans. There are over 100 of these institutions throughout the country and they are often viewed as epicenters of black culture and thought. Conversely, UT’s first black undergraduate class did not arrive until 1956, with this year marking the 60th anniversary of black undergraduates on campus. To this day the percentage of black students remains low – commonly referred to by UT students as “the four percent.” For black students on a predominantly white campus, questions of belonging and representation are bound to arise.

Carol-Armelle Ze-Noah, a freshman government major, did not apply to a single HBCU and faced no backlash after choosing to attend UT. However, while adjusting to life on campus at a predominantly white institution, Ze-Noah began to feel the effects of a low black student population. “Having only been here for a month, I just feel like I’m isolated,” said Ze-Noah. “There’s so little people who look like me [that] the issues I care about and feel strongly about aren’t really shared by most people.”

For Ze-Noah, even with the few black people she’s met, “there’s not this sense of community with them, which is sad.” Ze-Noah’s feelings are often shared by other black students at PWIs, especially upon first transitioning into the new environment. The lack of black student representation can create intense feelings of isolation and otherness, which can make it difficult to become fully immersed in the campus.

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Image by Robyn Yeh

Dr. Kevin Cokley, a UT professor in the departments of Educational Psychology and African and African Diaspora Studies and current director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, contributed his expertise on the matter. He noted that black students can face issues of both social and academic adjustment, with the added challenge of navigating microaggressions and feelings of being an impostor on campus.

According to Dr. Cokley, students who attend PWIs may have access to resources and social capital that could make them more competitive for professional and graduate schools. For some students, opportunities on campus are more important in their college decision than factors such as demographics. 

Like Ze-Noah, second year biology student Faith Simon faced no backlash regarding her decision to attend a PWI. Simon also did not apply to any HBCUs, primarily because she couldn’t see herself at one. “I’m the first in my family to go a traditional university in the first place, so I think they were just happy to see me going and making something of myself.”

In contrast to Ze-Noah’s experience, Simon found a greater connection with other black students and aspects of black culture at a PWI. “I come from a school that was probably whiter than UT,” said Simon, “the black community [at UT] is more close knit and everyone knows each other.” Simon stated that attending a PWI “has brought [her] closer to other black people,” and that she has learned more about herself and others like her since coming to UT.

The different experiences Ze-Noah and Simon have had at UT reflect an important component of this debate: not every black student will have the same experience at a PWI.  Dr. Cokley believes that while HBCUs “have historically done a better job of creating supporting and nurturing environments for Black students than PWIs,” there is no one simple answer to which type of school would be best for black students.

Though their experiences differ, Ze-Noah and Simon’s stories intersect at one fundamental point. Both students agree that diversity at UT remains an issue, and both have noticed ways to improve upon this aspect of the university’s environment.

“A lot of the time, UT only goes to visit high school kids in areas with high black and Latino populations when they want someone to throw a football or shoot some hoops,” said Simon. “I feel that UT doesn’t recruit black and Latino academics nearly as much as they recruit for sports and it sends a bad message.”

Ze-Noah also advocated for outreach to marginalized groups, as well as placing a greater emphasis on the ability of affirmative action to help diversification.

Though the HBCU vs. PWI question is still one of intense debate, Dr. Cokley offered a piece of advice for underrepresented groups on campus.

“Students should seek the support of similar students, staff and faculty where possible… [and] students should go outside of their comfort zone and get to know students, staff and faculty from different backgrounds.”

These differences in backgrounds and identities are not only what make universities powerful agents of change, but what allows UT students the chance to live up to the challenge of our motto: “What starts here changes the world.”

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