HBCU vs. PWI – The Questions We Really Should Be Asking and Answering

There’s nothing ridiculous, wasteful or inappropriate about the ongoing ‘HBCU vs. PWI’ debate, which continually finds new life every few months on social media outlets of all kinds. The latest chapter in the debate was sparked by 2014 Texas A&M University graduate Charity Chambers, who in less than 140 characters asserted that job prospects for black college graduates in a white man’s world, when stacked against grads from predominantly white institutions, were slim to none.

As much as we dislike it, there is some truth to her statement about HBCU graduates being less likely to get a job than PWI graduates – but it isn’t found in the career-ethering, culture hating way in which she delivered it.

It’s a truth about numbers – more black students attend PWIs than HBCUs – a fact that would lend itself to simple probability that a black student from a PWI is more likely to get a job than a black student from an HBCU.

But again, that’s not what she meant. Chambers meant to discredit the rigor, culture and appeal of HBCUs and the graduates they produce. Hers wasn’t an observation about probability, but of performance, real and perceived. Predictably, Chambers deleted her Twitter account shortly after the ‘HBCU-hive’ poured gasoline on what became a social media self-immolation.

But her Twitter flame out should help us to, finally, have some real conversations about why the HBCU vs. PWI is so real, and why it spurs so much passion from folks on both sides of the discussion. At its core, the conversation is propped up by three tenets:

  • Racial Pride
  • Social Justice
  • Individual Benefit

In all three categories, there is a case to be made about how both HBCUs and PWIs help black students to powerfully and clearly succeed.

Racial Pride

On the HBCU side, you are paying to live and learn among your own people about your own history, and to apply that knowledge into professional training and industrial context. On the PWI side, we are learning how to navigate the inevitable sting and impact of American racism, and to apply that knowledge into professional training and industrial context.

At HBCUs, the auxiliary elements of college life all reflect black interests and culture. Game day, marching bands, parties, friendships, relationships with faculty and staff, all reflect an affirmative actualization of being, thinking, acting, suffering, and achieving while black.

At PWIs, there is a sense of solidarity and sacrifice in having to search out these same elements – particularly for those students who are recruited to PWIs for the allure of diversity, only to find that their largest groups of friends, predominant social, political and cultural interests all revolve around how to be, think, act, suffer and achieve to underscore the value of being black, despite being in white space.

Social Justice

At HBCUs and PWIs the stated and unspoken obligation is to use your time as an asset to causes greater than ourselves. Except that we find that in 2016, that obligation for HBCUs students remains fixed on issues that pervade the world outside of our campuses, while black students rally to exorcise the same issues taking place on PWI campuses.

And in both of these pursuits, there is righteousness for fighting the good fight, and keeping the faith that one day, money and white privilege will bend to the will of more perfect race relations and humanity.

Individual Benefit

One of the biggest aspects of the HBCU vs. PWI debate is which degree matters most in the presence of the ‘middle aged white guy’ who is statistically, most likely to hire you in your chosen field. HBCU students and alumni have convinced ourselves that we are bad enough and prepared enough to showcase our talents and convince others of our value, in spite of the name on the degree.

At PWIs, black students believe in the prospect of the name on the degree doing the shining on their behalf, and that time is better spent proving their ability to keep the job, rather than proving they deserve the first interview – the primary duty of the school name printed on the degree.

These elements make the talkers, HBCU and PWI advocates alike, smart and socially conscious. But all of us are having conversations that are insignificant in what higher education really means to students and graduates, and communities. We, black people, tend to shape the HBCU vs. PWI argument on the peripheral elements of college life – school pride, job prospects and civic identity.

The real elements of college are those which help people to create and sustain business, create agendas for legislature and media, and build industries. And to this point, the HBCU vs. PWI conversation going forward should stand on these tenets:

  • Racial Affirmation
  • Social Autonomy
  • Community Benefit

Racial Affirmation

None of us has ever stopped to actually research the roots of the HBCU vs. PWI discussion, so we’ve never gotten around to asking the question “who actually started the idea that one kind of school was better than the other, especially for black folks” If we draw some social inferences based upon our cultural habits, rituals and values, it would be an intelligent guess to say that it probably wasn’t a black person who initially said that going to school to suffer the intolerance of white folks is a much better choice than going to our own school with our own people.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that a black person did originate that conversation. Was it a conversation about the inherent value of PWIs over HBCUs, or a conversation about the amount and quality of resources at PWIs that were not present at HBCUs? And if that indeed was the conversation, one that we’re still having 150 years after the creation of many HBCUs and 62 years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, have we found that desegregation and integration has made us any more welcome, culturally safer, or successful in these spaces?

Did we misread integration as a mission to change the minds of white folks, instead of its true purpose – to gain access to resources we otherwise would not have had? To gain training we otherwise wouldn’t have received? To take these things back to our communities to build our own self-affirmed place in society?

Or did we run with the false proposition that being black and admitted to white space made some of us special, most of us welcomed, and all of us fortunate to have the good grace of white America?

Social Autonomy

There are some other truths about HBCUs that a lot of PWI advocates seem to miss during our back and forth about the benefits and sacrifices which come with attending one over the other. First, many black students at PWIs are just now getting loud with their wish to see more black faculty and more black administrators on campus – as if the people doing the hiring for these spots suddenly have a searing mandate to do more for the minority segment of the campus population that, even with improvementd, will still be outnumbered, underrepresented, and un-valued.

Save for HBCUs, the statistics on black faculty, black researchers, and black administrators in higher education oversll would be virtually nil – which means that all the black intellectual capital we know today wouldn’t exist – because people outside of HBCUs probably wouldn’t have made the same hiring choices people at HBCUs tend to make.

Save for HBCUs, the country would be dramatically deficient in blacks holding terminal degrees in the sciences, which means that much of the research, clinical testing and medical development impacting black health disparities probably wouldn’t be getting done, or at least would be years behind in creation, because white folks tend to think about and solve issues impacting white folks.

Save for HBCUs, there would be no black middle class, no black political machine, no black social caste system; because most, if not all, black folks in the country would be uneducated, underrepresented and broke.

In other words, there’s little reason to believe that a predominantly white society, built upon the economic and social benefits of slavery and Jim Crow, would have allowed black presence in industrial or social development until HBCUs made it feasible and profitable to do so.

And today, despite being the richest, most educated, most politically active it’s ever been, Black America rewards White America by giving more of our tuition dollars, industrial innovation and cultural allegiance to its schools?

Beyoncè told us we should like our Afros and Negro noses, but maybe that doesn’t extend to our businesses and degrees?

Community Benefit

So we’ve come to some new places in the HBCU vs. PWI argument about where our perspectives on education, affluence and allegiance come from. But at the root of all of this are some simple questions about the business of higher education, and what it means when we concentrate our financial and human capital in certain places. Namely:

  • Is tuition revenue more likely to benefit black people in hiring, promotion, institutional contracts and grants, student activities, etc., at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Are black owned businesses more likely to be created around HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Are white-owned corporations looking for black employees more likely to recruit at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Are political candidates and legislative officials more likely to speak to, and hear the concerns of black voters at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Is research and outreach addressing disparities in health, finance, public safety, secondary education and poverty more likely to develop at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Are black athletes more likely to graduate at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Are black women more likely to be hired or promoted to executive roles at HBCUs or PWIs?
  • Which is more likely to admit and keep a black, first-generation high school student with marginal academic credentials and no money; an HBCU or PWI?
  • Which is more likely to impact a black community’s economic future if it closed – an HBCU or a PWI?

We can have the ancillary conversations about institutional fit, financial benefit, personal choice and industrial expectations all day. We can debate about the value of 13th grade vs. being an Uncle Tom vs. Preparing for the Real World forever. But there is one question that rises above all in the HBCU vs. PWI discussion.

Rich white guys thought so little about black folks that they created and funded the idea of HBCUs, only to poach students and resources away from them once they figured out how valuable they were in building Black America. Today and into the future, is it our job to help them finish the job, or to slow them down?

2 comments
  1. The implication that graduates of HBCU’s cannot and will not find jobs is absolutely unfair. As a graduate of an HBCU, I personally know scores of individuals who are thriving in careers in corporate America and various governmental entities; However, I believe HBCU’s are struggling because they are being mismanaged by “ELITE” blacks who have no idea how to successfully run a school in the 21 century. If our schools are to survive, we must cleanse our schools of these incompetent people immediately!!!!!

  2. I went to an HBCU because I HAD TO, or go crazy trying to fit my young gifted and Black self into the racist workplace of 1968 New York City. I was a smart Black girl from Harlem who integrated a white middle and high school in the Bronx. By the time I was almost finished with that series of racist nearly brainwashing experiences, I told my parents that I was applying to ALL BLACK schools for college because I was, “sick of white people.” A 17 year old, me, actually said that!! I attended Fisk and it was a HBCU culture shock at first, but it was without question my academic foundation and the BEST four years of my life. When my son was 6 years old my husband and I started getting him ready for attending Morehouse College and 11 years later he did. I don’t believe that white ice is colder (PWIs); I believe that BLACK coffee is stronger!!!

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