Affirmative Action’s End Could Boost HBCU Enrollment

With the end of affirmative action, more Black students will likely apply to HBCUs, which will need more funding to handle growing enrollments.
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For over 20 years, Pamela "Safisha Nzingha" Hill, Ph.D., has worked in higher education in both student development and academic affairs. Dr. Hill is a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant; Afrocentric scholar; activist; journalist; educator; ...
Published on July 25, 2023
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On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case that race cannot be used as a factor in college admissions. The ruling effectively strikes down affirmative action and ultimately will affect how predominantly white institutions (PWIs) maintain a culturally diverse student body.

A conservative group, Students for Fair Admissions, filed lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, insisting using race in the admissions process is unconstitutional.

Historically, the Supreme Court had to force selective institutions such as these to admit Black students who were denied based solely on race. However, in light of this ruling, applications from and enrollment of Black students and other students of color may drop significantly.

That could mean that historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will see an influx of applications. Additionally, even before the ruling, many top Black high school athletes, who were expected to sign with PWIs, decided to attend HBCUs instead.

With the end of affirmative action, the number of students will most likely continue to increase at Black colleges.

How Ending Affirmative Action Impacts Black Applicants

Affirmative action originated in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order into law requiring employers not to discriminate against applicants or employees based on race, creed, color, and national origin, and to take "affirmative action" to treat employees fairly.

Before the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, many selective institutions used race to justify their rejection of Black students. However, in the early 1970s, as community pressure — linked to the continuing fight for civil rights — and threats of not receiving federal funding grew, these same institutions began to actively recruit Black students. The consideration of race was added as a factor in the admissions process.

There are predominantly white institutions today that sincerely strive for a diverse student population. The ruling banning affirmative action will challenge these colleges and universities, as they must look for creative ways to draw Black students who already may feel rejected and decide to look at HBCUs.

More Black Students Could Apply to HBCUs

It's only been about 50 years since selective colleges began to admit Black students in larger numbers. Students often indicated they felt they were matriculating in hostile environments. And, in some instances, Black students have transferred before graduating because of discrimination.

The research today confirms much of the same.

A 2023 study by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup found that Black students are more likely to experience discrimination in college than all other postsecondary students. And the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that hate crimes and racial bias are also rising on college campuses.

For Black students, who may already feel unwelcome at predominantly white institutions, the Supreme Court's decision to end affirmative action perhaps validates their feelings of not being wanted.

HBCUs, on the other hand, were designed specifically for Black students. Many have open admissions, allowing students who may have struggled in high school to get in and have the tools and support to be successful.

Not only do students often feel more welcomed and supported by faculty and staff at HBCUs, but they are encouraged to excel academically and engage in Black culture. And they have opportunities to gain leadership skills.

HBCUs are credited with creating the Black middle class, as students who attend these institutions are more likely to earn graduate and professional degrees. Additionally, students who attend HBCUs are more likely to stay connected with their alma mater after graduation.

More Students Mean HBCUs Need More State Funding

HBCUs have been underfunded by nearly $12.8 billion over the last 30 years, according to Forbes. State-funded HBCUs tend to receive less than state-funded PWIs — even those that are land-grant designated.

However, during the Biden-Harris administration, more funding has gone to HBCUs under the American Rescue Plan through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, providing $2.7 billion, with half of what each institution receives going to financial relief.

Many HBCUs offer academic and athletic scholarships that assist students with their educational expenses. However, that assistance may be challenging to provide if applications double, specifically in terms of housing and infrastructure.

Many HBCUs are revising their admission requirements to become more selective, while still remaining dedicated to enrolling first-generation and economically underserved students. There's no doubt that HBCUs would welcome more students, but campus housing and classroom space may not accommodate a major influx.

Should You Still Apply to Selective Colleges Instead of HBCUs?

If you're determined to attend college, don't let the Supreme Court ruling deter you. Apply at a number of institutions, whether predominantly white or historically Black. Be prepared to pay the application fee and inquire whether you qualify for a fee waiver.

How Did the School Respond to the Supreme Court Decision?

How important is a college or university's response to the Supreme Court ruling to ban affirmative action in admissions? Selective universities nationwide have defended their processes and expressed their continued commitment to ensuring a diverse student body.

This will be difficult, especially in states that have banned diversity offices, which were created to provide a more welcoming environment and develop cultural programs to give students of color a sense of belonging.

If the selective institution you want to attend has made statements about staying committed to recruiting and enrolling a diverse student body, then you might be able to expect a better experience there.

What Kind of College Experience Do You Want and Need?

When considering a college, think about the type of experience you desire.

If you decide to attend a predominantly white institution, be prepared to be a minority in the classroom and have few Black professors. Class size may be as small as 20 or as large as over 200, depending on the campus's size.

If you're interested, you should find out if there is a Black Student Association on campus and join. This can be a great way to meet other Black students, get involved, and avoid feelings of isolation.

If you live on campus, you may have a roommate or roommates who are culturally different and may or may not have ever encountered Black people. The majority of other Black students you meet will likely live in-state.

You may encounter feelings of alienation and discrimination. Being involved in an organization can be helpful in providing a more positive collegiate experience. You should also seek out leadership opportunities and faculty willing to mentor you.

In comparison, at an HBCU, you will be in the majority, but there will also be other students of color and white students enrolled. You will mainly have Black professors, but you will also have other diverse instructors. The classroom size will probably be smaller, with 20-60 students.

The culture at an HBCU will likely be more welcoming, and faculty will have high expectations for your success. Your professors will likely know you by name, and if you miss class regularly, they'll notice.

It's also essential that you are involved in campus life and take advantage of both leadership and social opportunities. You will meet many Black students who come from out of state and discover a sense of pride and a bond among HBCU students and graduates.

You Can Still Mention Race in College Applications

If you are determined to attend a selective, predominantly white institution, you should not give up. The box you would check to indicate your race may be deleted, but you can still mention race if you're required to write an essay. This may increase your chances of getting accepted.

However, it can be complicated for students who feel they must suggest that their race has somehow limited opportunities or caused some trauma in their lives. There is already a misconception that Black and other students of color are less academically qualified. But in reality, they have historically been denied access based on their race, even if their academic standing was superior.