Op-Ed: Black students in California should consider attending an HBCU

Choosing a college is a big decision, and every spring thousands of seniors across California spend the next four to six years of their lives in a new school. I hope many of you, especially black students, don’t make the same mistake I did by excluding all historically black colleges and universities.

While the Golden State offers wealth and jobs, educational and economic opportunities are far beyond the reach of many of the state’s black residents. When black Californians attend college, even at racially diverse institutions within the state, Rather, they report experiencing overt racism, racist microaggression, and feelings of isolation and general impressions that their institutions are uninterested in their well-being or prosperity.

HBCUs offer an alternative to this. Black Californians, in particular, could benefit greatly from an educational environment that ensures black students’ success and belonging because they represent a small minority in their home state. Overall, blacks in California make up just 5% of the state’s total population, compared to 13.4% nationally. and Black student enrollment in California universities continues to decline.

There are more than 100 designated historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States. Most are in the southern states. California only has one, and it’s in Los Angeles: the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. It focuses solely on health and science, which could mean that many high school seniors will never consider Charles R. Drew University.

As a black former college student from Washington, DC who attended mostly white institutions, I wish I had attended HBCU. But I settled on the narrative “white colleges have more resources” and “white colleges prepare you for the real world.” And so I only applied to predominantly white universities. I never thought twice about how I would fare to be “the only one” in a 300-strong, almost all-white class. I never quite fit in, no matter how hard I tried to dress differently, style my hair, act and speak differently.

Had I attended an HBCU, I would have been embedded in a diverse community that might also relate to my experiences. I would have been taught by professors who looked like me. It would have made my academic experiences feel less like driving blindfolded.

Now I’m an assistant professor of sociology at San Jose State University, and my student demographics look vastly different from the classrooms I’ve become accustomed to in the past. Over three quarters of my students are black — far more than most public universities in California. I feel like I’m finally giving back to a community of students who are more representative of the whole country. I also feel valued in a way that I didn’t have as an undergraduate and graduate student in mostly white spaces.

HBCUs serve as hubs for social activism and efforts to promote racial educational justice for students of all backgrounds. In fact, recent data shows that black institutions historically attract a significant percentage of non-black students, including more Asian, Latino and International students of all racial groups than ever before. Many of these students say they chose HBCUs because of the campus climate, accessibility, and competitive STEM programs.

Still, HBCUs are largely left out of the talks when it comes to being ranked as top college targets. In recent years, notable HBCU alumni such as Voting Rights Activist Stacy Abrams (Spelman College graduate) and Vice President Kamala Harris (Howard University graduate) have brought some of these institutions to the attention of more people.

In 2020 we started seeing HBCUs receive more and well-deserved financial support. Policymakers paid more attention to these institutions as social issues such as the assassination of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement raised awareness of their role and importance.

HBCUs should continue to be recognized for what they do for students and for the lasting impact they make. They offer students something they can’t get anywhere else—an inclusive scholarly community that embraces the richness of the entire American experience. They have provided widespread access to post-secondary education for black students and other students of color, first-generation students and those from low-income families.

As the college value debate rages on during this admissions cycle, I hope prospective students and their families will consider touring HBCUs on their college road trips. These institutions have a proven track record of ensuring achievement, retention and completion of studies.

Yolanda Wiggins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San Jose State University and a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project. Op-Ed: Black students in California should consider attending an HBCU

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