Right up until decision day, Evan Wimberly had every intention of going to Cornell University in upstate New York. The year was 2018 and Wimberly had just graduated from Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School.
The prestige of the Ivy League school had lured him in. He also thought it would give him a better shot at getting into medical school down the road. But a last minute visit to Xavier University of Louisiana changed his mind.
“I loved the atmosphere,” Wimberly said. “And it seemed like a very family oriented place as opposed to when I took my visit to Cornell.”
Wimberly turned down offers from Cornell and several other predominantly white institutions because he decided he wanted a school like Xavier where he could experience that sense of community firsthand.
Attending a historically Black college or university is a longstanding tradition within many Black families, but Wimberly is the first in his to attend an HBCU. And since 2018, an increasing number of high school seniors in Chicago and beyond have been seeking out these schools.
Eight HBCUs have been part of the Common Application — an online tool used by most college applicants — since 2018. Collectively, they’ve seen applications increase by 29% during that time, according to Common App data. The Common App doesn’t name schools, but several top-ranked schools confirmed they were among the eight, including Xavier, Howard University and Spelman College in Atlanta. Spelman said its applications from Chicago have grown 32% over the last decade.
There are now 23 HBCUs that use the Common App. Applications to other top schools in the U.S. also are up significantly over the last several years.
Several factors contribute to the HBCU spike, said Karen Calloway, principal of Kenwood Academy, a school serving mostly Black students on the South Side. But she said it boils down to a growing desire from students to find a school where they feel they will belong.
“Students just want to be in a community where they can express themselves organically without any kind of repercussion,” Calloway said. “And I think that students of color have adopted that way of thinking — more so over the last two years,” since the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, she said.
“What we’ve gone through in the last two years, as a race, I think that students are feeling very connected to pursuing an education at a historically Black college or university,” said Calloway, who is also African-American.
Finding a home away from home
Kendrick Jackson, a Chicago High School for the Arts 2022 graduate, has been wearing his crimson Howard University hoodie for a couple of weeks. Sitting cross-legged on his bed, he smiles as he thinks about all the YouTube videos he watched during the pandemic to figure out where he wanted to study music and business.
Aside from Howard, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C., he was also considering the Berklee College of Music and two other HBCUs, Morgan State University and Morehouse College. But what really set him on Howard was a NPR Tiny Desk performance of the school’s Afro Blues ensemble that he found online.
“I remember watching that video and how they sang, and how they were interpreting the music, and I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to learn something like that,’ ” Jackson said.
Jackson also was aware of the overtly formal culture that can exist within prestigious music schools like Berklee. He thought it would force him to portray a specific image of himself.
“I felt that at Berklee, I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. I felt like I’d have to just be … a watered-down Kendrick. … I want to be somewhere where I can give you everything about me and you fall in love with who I am.’ ”
Calloway, from Kenwood Academy, said she sees that a lot in her African-American students.
“A lot of that does have to do with how these schools make them feel when they get on those campuses,” she said.
Calloway organizes a national college tour for Kenwood students each year that includes an array of predominantly white institutions, known as PWIs, and HBCUs. Students get to meet Kenwood grads who give them informal tours.
“We do that at every school, regardless of what type of school it is,” she said. “But it appears as though it has more bang when we do it at the historically Black colleges.”
When Wimberly toured Xavier, he recalls how his tour guide gave him a detailed layout of what his life would look like at the school and gave him a rundown of the different organizations he could join.
At Cornell, Wimberly said he saw some buildings, listened to a talk for an hour but walked away without little new information. “And if, let’s say, I had gone to a predominantly white institution such as Cornell, there’s not too many students there that necessarily look like me,” he said.
Eventually, he found that at Xavier.
“White is not right”
Romeldia Salter’s daughter Corinne had her sights set on Stanford University, the University of California Los Angeles and several other PWIs before the civil unrest of 2020. As a Spelman graduate, Salter had hoped both her daughters would end up in Atlanta, eating in the same dining halls and studying in the same classrooms she had. But she kept her distance.
“I didn’t push Spelman at all. And then all the political and social strife [of 2020] and the George Floyd, the Breonna Taylor, all of that happened and she was home … doing school remotely,” Salter said of her daughter, who went to high school in Chicago.
For the teens that witnessed the social justice movement take off, that year changed the way they saw the world. It also changed where many of them saw themselves going to college.
“Out of that, my youngest daughter found her voice. She has a blog, so she started writing, she started reading … and then all of a sudden it was ‘I’m choosing Spelman,’’ Salter said.
At the same time, Salter, who is the principal of George M. Pullman Elementary School on the Far South Side, noticed a similar perspective shift among parents. She had always been a fierce advocate for HBCUs and encouraged both her students at Pullman and the parents in her circle to consider them.
But convincing parents had never been easy, Romeldia Salter said.
Even Salter’s father, who was a University of Michigan graduate, had concerns over his daughter going to Spelman at the time.
“He was all about me attending the University of Michigan and did not think that going to an HBCU would be a wise choice as there are so many people who believe that ‘white is right, it’s better, it’s more resourced, you’ll have better chances, you’ll have better opportunities,” Salter said. “That just speaks to the stereotypical perspective that people have of Black people. And when HBCUs were designed, they were created for us because we couldn’t go anywhere else.”
But Salter thrived at Spelman. And after 2020, she didn’t have to convince anyone of the magic of HBCUs anymore. Parents, she said, just stopped buying into the notion that white schools were better or that they would offer their children more job opportunities. Many also realized they didn’t want their children to be in educational environments where they didn’t feel like they could have open discussions about systemic racism in America.
Still, there are struggles at some HBCUs. Torene Harvin had a hard time covering her tuition when she attended Bennett College, a historically Black all-women’s school in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The school offered her little scholarship money. And as a freshman in the early 2010s, she attended protests and wrote letters to the administration with other students “just to fight for our rights at the school.”
Still, she remembers how the strong sisterhood at Bennett helped her overcome her hardships. “It’s like you have this big family that just came from all places in the United States,” Harvin said.
Harvin now works in communications at Northwestern University. Sitting in her office, she recalled being blown away by the scholarship money she received from Northwestern when she arrived there as a master’s student in 2015. But she also remembers having a hard time adjusting to the mostly white school.
“I was just really trying to figure out, how do I connect with people who don’t look like me?” she said. “And when I was at my HBCU … we didn’t have to think about racism and deal with discrimination. It was like, a euphoric land where we can just be ourselves.”
For Harvin, choosing an HBCU was like choosing family, because that’s where her parents wanted her to go.
And that’s where she wants to send her 3-year-old daughter when the time comes.
“I don’t care where she goes for grad school,” Harvin said. “But she has to go to an HBCU.”
This story has been changed to include the correct school where Romeldia Salter is principal. She leads George M. Pullman Elementary School.