Historically Black Colleges & Universities provide opportunity

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Tommy Netterville, a student at Morgan State, speaks with BYU journalists about how seeking higher education through HBCUs offered opportunities he had not before considered and provided him a supportive community. (Lilli Vehikite)

Brightly painted shirts dry in a Baltimore breeze. Music echoes through the mess hall as students dance. Student organizers hurry to and fro, many of them sporting sorority and fraternity letters with pride. It’s “I Love Morgan” week on the Morgan State campus, and the student body is buzzing with life.

Morgan State University holds a spot as one of 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States. According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, HBCUs were defined as “any historically Black college or university that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.”

Not only do these places of higher education offer a rich legacy of Black excellence, they offer a university experience distinctly catered to the needs and challenges of young Black Americans. For many of the students at Morgan State, personal and cultural legacies bleed together.

“Morgan is like my heart,” said Tomi Reed, a Morgan State senior. “It means a lot to be a student here. I’m leaving with a legacy behind me so that people can follow what I’ve done. That’s what it’s about — leaving your mark on campus.”

Reed knows a thing or two about legacy. By her own assertion, her decision to attend Morgan State was easy. With her grandparents having met at the university, and with a grandfather on the Morgan State Board of Regents, Reed had witnessed firsthand the value HBCUs bring to the lives of their graduates.

“It runs in the family. Morgan, born and raised,” Reed said.

However, Reed isn’t just looking back. As chief staff secretary of the campus activities board, she is proactive in building her own legacy and developing herself for her post-graduate life.

“Morgan really is the advocate for its students,” Reed said. “They really help you get internships, help you get jobs, and opportunities that I don’t think I would have if I went to a different school.”

Reed’s impression regarding the opportunities afforded to her by Morgan is validated by the school’s own mission statement. Morgan State’s first proclaimed goal is “Enhancing Student Success.” This drive to develop the student body is also reflected in statistics surrounding HBCUs.

“The Numbers Don’t Lie: HBCUs Are Changing the College Landscape,” an article released by the United Negro College Fund, identified some of the key ways HBCUs bring value to Black students. According to the article, HBCUs cultivated nearly 20 percent of all African American college graduates despite constituting only three percent of the colleges and universities in the United States. The Fund also identified the low pricing of HBCUs as a major factor in broader student success, as Black students may encounter financial roadblocks when pursuing higher education.

“HBCUs disproportionately enroll low-income, first-generation and academically underprepared college students,” according to the article. “On average, the cost of attendance at an HBCU is 28 percent less than attending a comparable non-HBCU.”

The unique opportunities afforded by Morgan State and other HBCUs like it touch the lives of students like Tommy Netterville. According to Netterville, seeing the experience his sister had at Morgan State convinced him to follow in her footsteps — even if that meant moving across the country from Missouri to Maryland.

And because of the more accessible tuition rates offered by Morgan State, Netterville said he was able to make the critical move toward higher education.

Not all his opportunities were financial. Through Morgan’s tight-knit community, Netterville was able to discover a passion for lacrosse he’d never tested before.

Now, he plays as a member of the Morgan State lacrosse team.

“Morgan has given me an opportunity to play lacrosse and really develop that part of myself, which I love,” he told a BYU student journalism team in April 2022. “Doors have just been opened, ones I didn’t even know about when I came here.”

For Joanna Collins, Morgan State offered a place where she didn’t have to feel like a minority — because she wasn’t one. According to Collins, her family moved from Nigeria to Maryland when she was a teenager. Collins transferred to Morgan State after two years at Community College of Baltimore County and she appreciates the dynamic and resources provided to her by Morgan.

“The classes are small — I don’t like classes that are too huge,” she said. “And then that’s how you get a good relationship with your lecturer and your classmates, too.

“I did want to go to school where I wasn’t a minority. I always thought, ‘Well, it’d be nice to go to school like that.’” Joanna said. “I feel really comfortable here.”

E.R. Shipp, a founding faculty member of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University, expressed her belief in HBCUs as a valuable resource for Black students.

“Folks have asked ‘Why are y’all still around?’” Shipp said, referring to HBCUs in the 21st century. “As if we should fold up and deny our own history and walk away from the cultural presence we have been as an institution.”

According to Shipp, HBCUs such as Morgan not only exist for those hoping to sustain the legacy of Black universities, but also for students fighting against disadvantages.

“Sometimes (students) are gonna need a little bit more nurturing,” said Shipp. “They’re gonna be in an environment where they are expected to succeed as opposed to in the (predominantly white institution) environment where people are questioning whether you’re good and if you belong there.”

Shipp expressed her concerns surrounding the environment Black students face in primarily white institutions of education.

“Even in subtle ways, you’re led to think that maybe people don’t want you there,” she said.

Shipp’s comments are supported by recent studies. According to the United Negro College Fund, “HBCUs, in general, outperform retention and graduation expectations” proportionate to their target demographic of students and the resources at their disposal. This idea was reinforced by a 2015 Gallup Poll titled, “USA Funds Minority College Graduates Report.” The results of the report showed Black students attending HBCUs are more satisfied with their college experience and more confident in their future outlook than Black students attending primarily white institutions.

Fortunately, Historically Black Colleges and Universities aren’t going away anytime soon. According to data from the National Center of Education Statistics, “Black enrollment at HBCUs increased by 11 percent between 1976 and 2020” with institutions like Morgan State, North Carolina A&T State, and Howard University seeing enrollment surges during the pandemic. The HBCU tradition is, it seems, going strong. And according to Shipp, HBCUs aren’t going out of style anytime soon.

“HBCUs are a space where being Black is not an impediment in any way,” said Professor Shipp. “(At HBCUs) you’re gonna build up your self-confidence. You’re gonna have whatever skills you need.”

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