Arguably, deciding where to attend college is one of the most important decisions a high school student will ever make. Yet, it is often not a decision made with the level of objective analysis, consideration and care it deserves.
With more than 4,000 two-year, four-year, public, private and proprietary institutions located throughout the United States, today’s students have college choices far greater than anything imaginable compared to the choices my classmates and I had while growing up in the Arkansas delta in the 1960s.
In the apartheid state of Arkansas, I had four college choices and they were all historically black colleges (HBCUs). They included Arkansas A. M. & N. College (an 1890 public Land Grant College), Philander Smith College (a United Methodist school), Arkansas Baptist College (Missionary Baptist affiliated) and Shorter College (an African Methodist Episcopal Church sponsored school). Each of these low-wealth, open admissions institutions catered to the educational needs of black Arkansans. Most importantly, they succeeded in graduating an overwhelming proportion of students in four years rather than five.
HBCU graduates from the Deep South made up the first wave of black executives in both the government and private sectors of the American economy.
As we enter the college application season, I want to offer my insights into what I believe students should take into consideration in selecting a college. These observations are based on my experience as a parent, former admissions officer, dean, vice president and university chancellor.
1. Before applying to a single institution, students should make a list of the attributes they seek in a college or university and assess the institutions they’re considering against those criteria;
2. Don’t be blinded by the blitz nor deceived by the photos! With the advent of social media and photo shop, even the least attractive institutions can be presented as vibrant and aesthetically pleasing places to learn, live and work even though they may be on the cusp of collapse;
3. The best way to determine your trajectory of success as an alumnus of an institution is to review the record of success of previous graduates;
4. Liking or even loving an institution isn’t reason enough to select it; there must be a good fit between your interests and needs and the institution’s capacity to meet them;
5. If an institution doesn’t offer your major, scratch it from your list sooner rather than later! While it’s true that some institutions permit students to design their majors or complete a degree via a consortium, the availability of needed classes can prove difficult;
6. Just because a college or university is private or costly doesn’t mean that the quality is higher;
7. Your interests and needs, and the institution’s capacity to meet them, must be the driving force behind your college choice, not whether it’s an HBCU or PWI.
8. Don’t assume you won’t qualify for financial aid or a scholarship because your friend did not; complete the FAFSA, it’s free;
9. Check graduation rates, graduate school acceptance rates and job placement rates of institutions before applying. If those rates are low, promptly scratch the institution from your list;
10. Make sure the institution is financially affordable for four years, not just one. And, don’t be afraid to negotiate your financial aid package!
The foregoing suggestions notwithstanding, high school seniors must include their parents in developing the list of schools to which they will apply. After all, students must rely on their parents for financial support or for cooperation in completing the FAFSA.
Finally, it is my considered opinion that every African American prospective college student should include at least one HBCU on the list of schools to which they will apply. I believe this is the case because HBCUs have a proven track record of providing a psychologically supportive environment in which
African American students can thrive, not simply survive. Similarly, I believe that students of other ethnic backgrounds would benefit tremendously by stepping out of their comfort zone and benefiting from the rich holistic educational experience provided by HBCUs.