When all the factors that determine the choice of a college are laid out, the bottom line is what institution best meets a student’s needs, says Thandabantu B. Maceo, Director of Admissions and Interim Financial Aid Director at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Institutions are the sellers and students are the buyers. It’s up to the students to make the best buy. “For some African-American students, a historically black college or university (HBCU) is the best choice. For others, it’s not,” he states.
Whether HBCU or traditionally white, a college’s job is to make you smart, says Michael Tapscott, Director of the Office of Minority Student Affairs at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. Because African-American students reflect many backgrounds, there is no single decision that is best for everyone. The choice of a college is a personal preference, he observes.
Frank Matthews, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Black Issues in Higher Education, is a bit more direct in his advice to African-American parents and their children. “Parents have to be realistic and can’t think that going to an HBCU is nirvana. Nor is a white institution the best choice because they think that’s the place to get the best education.”
Am I making assumptions, or am I looking at
what’s really important to me?
L’Tanya Richmond was educated at a traditionally white institution (TWI) and is currently the Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Affairs at Elon College, a majority institution in Elon College, North Carolina. Working with African-American high school students, she recommends that they put aside the acronyms of HBCU or TWI and look at the reasons why they want a degree and what they want to achieve with it. Because there are so many other components to take into consideration, applicants can’t assume an HBCU is the best option for every student of color, she states.
Why do I want to go to college?
The choice of college starts with taking a close look at yourself, says Lori Wright, Coordinator of Multicultural Student Recruitment at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She suggests students ask themselves these questions first:
- Am I going to college because I want to, or because my parents have always assumed I would go?
- Is the choice to attend an HBCU mine or my family’s?
- Do I have a particular field of study I want to pursue?
Though college definitely is a means to a career, those four years also offer personal growth and development. Thus the decision about which college to attend must include a thorough inventory of likes and dislikes on the part of the student. Wright advises students to ask themselves:
- Do I want a large university or a small, nurturing environment?
- Do I want an urban or rural setting?
- How important is the diversity of the campus to me?
- How important are extracurricular activities to me?
Parents, what are your children’s talents and dreams?
Parents attempting to help their children with the choice of a college should begin with an intimate knowledge of that child’s abilities and aspirations. Sometimes parents think they know what their children want, but they haven’t really talked to them, Richmond cautions. Children are the ones spending four years at an institution, doing the work, and making the grades. In many cases, this is a child’s first step to independence, so it is the child who needs to make the final decision. Once the way has been cleared by honest communication between parents and children, then a list of institutions can be generated.
“It’s all about finding yourself,” says LaVanski D. Meeks, a soon-to-graduate business student at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents let him make the decision about college. In fact, Meeks started out at an HBCU and transferred to a majority institution because it had a better business department. His parents were behind him all the way.
How will this campus fit my plans for the future?
There’s no substitute for doing your homework about the campuses you’re seriously considering, says Matthews, warning that parents and students can get caught up in the nostalgia of HBCUs. “Know the reputation of those campuses in the community, among employers, and the general population,” he recommends. He urges applicants to do the basic research about graduation, retention, and placement rates.
And curriculum. Nicholson reports that African-American students will sometimes get so caught up in applying to an institution, they don’t realize it doesn’t even offer their major. “I don’t want students to come here just because Howard is an HBCU,” she says.
At this point, students should get into questions such as:
- How will an HBCU or traditionally white university fit my goals and personal requirements?
- What is the reputation of each institution I’m considering?
- How do the curriculums compare between institutions?
- What is the 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?
How will my degree be viewed in the workplace?
After you’ve determined what you want to study, Wright tips students to look at the value of the degree in the work force and from the viewpoint of an employer. “What kind of doors will it open for you?” she questions. To determine that, compare facilities and resources and access to current technology.
Does this campus have the facilities and living conditions that suit my comfort level?
Finding a campus where you’re comfortable is a prominent factor in the choice of a college, too, advises Janice L. Nicholson, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She, too, tells students to start with general questions about what they want to get from college and move toward the specifics of campus facilities and living conditions. For instance, if a student has gone to a private high school where everyone has a private bedroom, drives an expensive car and goes skiing, maybe living on a large urban campus with peers who don’t mirror that kind of background would be a mistake.
Will I be happy with the campus location?
Rudolph Slaughter, Director of High School and Community College Relations at Florida A&M University observes that some students are drawn to his campus because of its location in the fairly small city of Tallahassee. Others who come from urban areas don’t want that kind of environment. Likewise, students from a rural or suburban environment would be wise to ask pointed questions about safety issues when considering urban campuses. Wright observes that many African-American teens today grow up in suburbia and have never really encountered the tougher realities of living in a city. To get a true perspective of how location will affect the college experience, Wright suggests talking with current students and alumni to see what it’s really like on a day-to-day basis.
What level of support will I get on campus?
Students considering traditionally white campuses are wise to take a look at the support systems available for them. “It takes more than just an office on campus,” warns Richmond. “Students on majority campuses must have someone with whom they can identify and someone who will make them feel wanted.” It puts students and parents particularly at ease if they see people of color in administrative positions or working in a minority affairs office, observes Richmond. Parents need to feel comfortable with the contact person on campus. “You never know when an incident can happen, and for that reason African-American students need a home base,” she says.
Richmond speaks from her own experience. While attending a traditionally white university, she was able to create her own HBCU experience with the other African-American students on campus. They sought out opportunities for collective experiences such as meeting at a black student union, sororities and fraternities, and off-campus parties. Richmond says this provided them with an insulated and secure world that gave them the ability to deal with occasional racial incidents.
How will a visit to the campus affect my choices?
Students can make up extensive checklists. Ask hundreds of questions. Research dozens of Web sites and talk on the phone to admissions people throughout the country. But if they don’t set foot on the campuses they’re considering, they’re in for big trouble. “Always visit any institution you’re interested in,” cautions Juliet Johnson, Interim Director of Admissions and Orientation Services at Spelman College in Atlanta. “Selecting a college is a big investment. You’re looking at four years of life that will mold you. You’ve got to see if that institution has the right fit.” Tapscott strongly advises students to stay overnight so they can make an informed decision that isn’t based on first impressions. “It’s absolutely critical,” he says.
“While on campus, ask questions. As many as you want, and don’t think any question is stupid,” says Johnson. She suggests students ask other students and admissions directors:
- How does the college match their expectations?
- What was the deciding factor that made them decide to come to that institution?
- What is residential life like on this campus?
- 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?
“Both HBCUs and traditionally white institutions have great things to offer,” Tapscott says. “A majority college may not offer the same experience as an HBCU, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as effective.”