What ‘College Hill: Celebrity Edition’ Teaches Us About HBCU Culture

The "College Hill" reboot is showcasing HBCU culture in notable ways. Read more to understand how the show encapsulates these institutions.

portrait of Sydney Clark
by Sydney Clark

Published August 18, 2022

Share this Article
What ‘College Hill: Celebrity Edition’ Teaches Us About HBCU Culture
Image Credit: Paras Griffin / Stringer / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images


As the public becomes increasingly aware of constructs that affect race, sexuality, and other social identities, culture adjusts to fit them. This phenomenon exists everywhere, including at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While some public institutions may view and react to these social changes negatively, HBCUs are taking them in stride.

As student populations change, these colleges and universities are adjusting to ensure that their institutions best fit students — and a prime example of this trend is BET's reboot of "College Hill."

"College Hill: Celebrity Edition" features prominent Black celebrities who never finished their higher education. They get a chance to earn a multidisciplinary studies certificate by taking accelerated courses.

The show, which takes place at Texas Southern University (TSU), is a window into modern-day HBCU culture. As the eight celebs — NeNe Leakes, Ray J, Stacey Dash, DreamDoll, India Love, Lamar Odom, Big Freedia, and Big Slim (formerly Slim Thug) — live together and attend classes, their interactions reveal that HBCUs have a culture of community, inclusivity, and educational excellence.

Inclusivity

"College Hill: Celebrity Edition" tackles notably difficult conversations occurring in the mainstream. For example, housemates Big Freedia, a gender-fluid person, and Big Slim, a cisgender man, sit down to discuss gender pronouns, which Slim admits he is not entirely familiar with as a concept.

Incoming students identify themselves in increasingly diverse ways. Their peers and HBCUs are changing how they understand and accommodate students with different gender identities.

Spelman College, a women's institution, was an example of this in 2018 when it expanded its admissions to include trans students. Other HBCUs are also increasing their LGBTQ+ inclusion on campuses as they reflect on the needs of students and the Black community overall.

Mental health is another prominent conversation on the show, as actress Stacey Dash leaves the program early after experiencing a panic attack.

HBCUs are increasing their understanding of behavioral and psychological health. The celebrity housemates have numerous dialogues surrounding their mental health as they are pushed to their limits while earning their certificates.

Additionally, respectability politics — or the act of conforming to mainstream standards of appearances and behavior, often rooted in racism — surface occasionally among the cast. This happens mainly through standards of professional dress enforced by the professors.

As a tactic long used by the Black community to protect themselves from discrimination, it's understandable why this concept still grips the culture. Yet, students, who recognize the negative outcomes of adhering to respectability politics, are increasingly speaking out against these standards.

Community Building

The aspect of living together in the house, meant to replicate the college experience of living in a dorm, exacerbates the cast members' yearning for community.

Most admit to wanting to feel the community associated with a typical college experience, and their actions reflect the community-oriented culture of HBCUs.

First, as inclusion increases, so does the ability to build community — and the celebrity housemates take the community atmosphere of the house very seriously. Aside from the cast's previous lives and beliefs — namely Dash's past statements aligning herself with extremist conservative viewpoints — they all make a significant effort to ensure everyone feels at home.

The celebrities consistently conduct team-building activities, establishing a rhythm in the house that relies on all of them interacting with each other. They all contribute to a nurturing environment, which is what many students who attend or plan to attend an HBCU yearn for in their college experience.

Supporting one another extends beyond surface-level pleasantries. Instead, it goes into how they share difficult experiences they have had and continue to overcome during their college experience.

The deaths of family members, overcoming social anxiety, and, notably, Lamar Odom's fear of failure due to his reduced cognitive ability after his overdose, are difficult conversations to have. But these conversations bring the cast together and embrace the community-building culture of HBCU life.

"College Hill: Celebrity Edition" depicts a tight-knit group of new friends who refuse to leave one another behind.

Educational Excellence

Finally, the culture of excellence in education is a common thread throughout the show.

The students take many classes from different disciplines, but the single course they consistently take throughout their college experience is in African American studies.

This class often anchors their understanding of the other courses they take and is used to reflect on their existence both as Black people in academia and as Black people navigating the world.

The show illustrates the life-changing quality of a good education and often helps the students process their personal experiences in tandem with Black culture and history. It becomes clear to viewers that this is one of the most apparent differences between HBCU culture and other institutions.

Work ethic, course rigor, participation, grading, and other themes are among the most influential academic topics that "College Hill" addresses. However, the topic of plagiarism is prominent throughout the program.

Along with the professors' concerns about a few of the cast members' occasional negligence in coming to class and participating equally, plagiarism is the downfall of Ray J — who is suspended from the program because of it.

This incident is meant to exemplify the academic excellence that HBCUs instill in their students. It's commonly believed that HBCUs are not as demanding in terms of coursework as other institutions. Yet, the show is a clear indication that this belief, generally rooted in racism, is untrue.

Conclusion

"College Hill: Celebrity Edition" is a grab bag of different elements of HBCUs, showcasing the positive changes that HBCUs are making in their culture. When watching the show, potential students can get a glimpse of what may be in store for them if they decide to attend a similar institution.

The show helps them shape their understanding of HBCU culture and provides an opportunity for them to see first-generation college students in action. Viewers end up with an invaluable portrait of Black culture and a greater understanding of HBCUs overall.