Historically black colleges and universities have been experts at distancing themselves from painful elements of their cultural past. One of those elements – the brown paper bag admissions test.
Propagated as urban legend but a real practice for some of our most reputable HBCU campuses, light complexion was once an admission qualification for college enrollment, and fraternity and sorority membership. The best candidates were as light as or lighter than the hue of a brown paper bag, ruler or other inanimate object brought to life with the task of adjudicating ethnic acceptance.
Black folks today still suffer great growing pains to free ourselves of complexion-based valuation, but we’ve grown enough to cast it out from admissions standards at the HBCU. The thought of denying black people admission to a black college because of skin color seems beyond forgivable; a direct arrow through the heart of the HBCU mission and cultural legend.
But is it more forgivable for HBCUs to knowingly admit underprepared students without discernible interest in higher education? A look at admission practices for many of today’s HBCUs reveals a woeful abuse of and honor for the black college mission and vision, an uneven exchange of student debt and continuing family hardship for tuition revenues and enrollment numbers.
Paper bags were once a reprehensible screening process of HBCU talent, the beneficiaries of which became the Black American diplomats and barrier breakers in segregated industries and social structures. Now criminal records, poor writing skills and abhorrent test scores lead a new and equally reprehensible culture degrading the HBCU experience and degree.
Safety, attrition, school spirit, financing, alumni giving and community outreach all begin with enrollment management, and no investment in retention, student affairs, academic rigor or athletics can remedy a student or throng of students whose lack of college readiness is only exceeded by a lack of personal maturity or underdeveloped ethics. HBCUs are impacted by a minute percentage of students who, because their demonstrated lack of college potential or readiness wasn’t properly screened, can cause great institutional detriment when they drop out, drink or drug out, or are taken away by the aid of an arresting officer.
As with most sensitive topics in the HBCU landscape, the discussion begins with resources. Many HBCUs don’t have the personnel or technology to adequately screen and review the thousands of applications they receive every year. But what these admissions offices do have is a mission statement, alumni chapters and a charge to bring the best students they can find to an institution. Is it better to invest time and money into recruiting a class of 400-500 students that want the HBCU experience and are personally committed to completion, than 1000-1200 students of which a little more than half are going to finish in more than five years anyway?
The solution doesn’t require an elaborate system of interviewing, one-on-one recruiting or database management. It simply requires recruitment officers to be more selective about high school visits and relationship building with guidance counselors, partnership with alumni associations to cultivate qualifying legacy admits, and intense outreach to the annual handful of local students who show exemplary academic promise beginning in the 8th grade.
We once held a brown paper bag up to students to determine their opportunities. How about now holding them up to higher standards of potential and merit?
Bragging about a record-breaking entering class of freshman in the fall and reporting a graduation rate of 35 percent or lower in the spring is sideways hustling, and robs black communities of time and money that could be dedicated to better preparatory instruction through partnerships between HBCUs and two-year institutions. For too long, HBCUs have hidden high attrition and low-graduation rates behind the problem of affordability. Once upon a time, that was a great move to build the resources that would eventually allow for stronger remediation and social rehabilitation on the black college campus.
Those days have passed by quickly, and if black colleges do not reassess how critical recruitment and admissions are to HBCU capacity and culture, good students will avoid these campuses in larger numbers to avoid increased crime, low performance and empowered stereotypes about the HBCU.
And they’ll wind up at colleges and universities which consciously or otherwise, will judge and ostracize them based on their complexions. No paper bag necessary.