Between 1986 and 1993, total enrollment at historically black colleges and universities increased from 223,275 students to 282,856 — the largest seven-year stretch of enrollment increase for HBCUs as recorded by the National Center for Education Statistics.
More than 59,500 new students entered HBCUs over that period, and with an average tuition price of $6,400 during those seven years, the spike represents an estimated $381 million in potential tuition revenue.
Not coincidentally, the period also covers the run of NBC’s ‘A Different World,’ the signature Thursday night sitcom which turned life at an HBCU into ‘The Cosby Show’s’ extended view of the black middle class. So when you hear the reverence alumni and executives have for ‘A Different World,’ this is the statistic which drives that pride in the show.
And it’s the statistic that also drives the anxiety about the future of HBCUs in 2017 and beyond. There is no more Thursday night staple of college classrooms, dorm rooms and cafe talk from the black context; now it is a Wednesday night scandal-laden view of the same courtesy of BET’s ‘The Quad.’
All we need to know about the show can be summed up in a recent interview from one of its stars. Ruben Santiago-Hudson told the Tom Joyner Morning Show last week that ‘The Quad’ was never meant to be a vehicle for promoting HBCUs.
“I think a lot of people are misplacing what this show is about. It takes place at an historical black college, but the elements of the show are human elements; elements of deceit and love, and jealously and desire and working hard. Everybody keeps looking at it like its a black university show, but its actually a human show which takes place in an arena which is specifically the historical black college. But it really is an adult drama.”
We get it. The show won’t be about HBCUs. But imagine if its content and production were able to live up to the weekly peek onto the campus of Hillman College? If Hollywood wanted to, it could easily spur the same movement which directed millions to black colleges in the early 1990’s, and contribute to growing movement of black solidarity in an age of separatism.
But instead, ‘The Quad’ is trying to tell a human story. And that story, while valuable and worthy in the context of black art, is not helpful in the crisis facing these institutions. And it misses the mark of its role within the precarious situation faced by black folks in America today, as acted out by the struggles of HBCUs.
If ‘The Quad’ or projects like it were focused on driving students to black colleges, maybe HBCU presidents wouldn’t be in the position of having to broker with Donald Trump.
Perhaps there would not be such sharp dissonance between trustees, presidents, students, alumni, media and donors; at odds about what it means for black people representing black institutions to sit at a table across from white men with clear and unapologetic ties to white nationalism and supremacist ideology.
And with the US president who hired them.
But it’s not fair to place this burden on ‘The Quad’ and its band of producers, writers and actors. In the end, they are being true to their vocation and their art. Nothing mandates them to even give HBCU culture a nod in a television series, and in some respects, there is room for gratitude in the notion that black colleges even have this inch in the effort to try and run a country mile in promoting our campuses to a shrinking number of students.
Most of the blame falls on Black America itself. Because the truth is that even though ‘A Different World’ has been off for 20 years, and ‘The Quad’ has been largely disappointing from an advocacy perspective for two episodes, we should have been exclusively attending and sending our students to attend these schools all along.
It is inexplicable to know that ‘HBCU,’ strictly as a brand, commands the attention of both American political parties and a major television network. That means that rich white guys with money acknowledge the buying power and cultural resonance of HBCUs, and are willing to find ways to invest in it, exploit it, use it and market it for a variety of political and economic pathways to black conscience.
But in turn, we as Black Americans do not come close to the kind of investment that others outside of our communities have made in HBCUs. Roughly 294,000 students were enrolled in HBCUs in 2014, and 78 percent of those students were black. 20 million students were enrolled in college over the same period, and 2.7 million of those students self-reported as African American.
With an average annual tuition cost of $21,700, black students generated $58.5 billion in potential tuition revenue for higher education, and HBCUs received $6.3 billion — from black students.
So when you wonder why people are so disappointed in ‘The Quad,’ and why our presidents are going to meet with Trump, and why HBCUs struggle so mightily to keep presidents, field nationally competitive athletic teams, eliminate financial aid lines and all of the other damaging realities and stereotypes that we as a community can throw at black colleges, just remember that it truly is a different world from where we’ve come from.
And truly, it is passing us by.