Fewer African American students are choosing historically black colleges and universities, or HBCU's. Instead, most opt to attend predominantly white schools. MPB's Ashley Norwood reports on the trends causing the decline and a response from Mississippi's black institutions.
Deveon Treadway is two years from graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from Mississippi Valley State University, one of the seven historically black colleges and universities in the state. Treadway is a native of Chicago, and the first male in his family to complete high school and pursue college. He says, attending an HBCU was his way out.
"I lost my own brother to gun violence, gang violence in Chicago. So I knew that I wanted to be as far away from there as possible so that I could really develop myself. I wanted to go somewhere where I could really change something around me," said Treadway.
Just twenty-five years ago, almost half of black college students in Mississippi attended HBCU's. That number fell to 28 percent, in the most recent year all data categories were available.
Most historically black institutions were created in the 1800's to educate recently freed slaves. Freedmen and other African Americans thought it was important to have an education, but were not allowed in already existing white schools.
Beverly Wade Hogan is the President of Tougaloo College, a private HBCU located outside of Jackson.
"If there was going to be a progression from slavery to citizenship, it was going to have to take the path of education. The journey of oppressed people (is) from slavery to citizenship in America to scholarship and leadership," said Hogan.
Nekkita Beans, is a senior social work major at the University of Mississippi. She is also the president of the black student union. Beans says she considered a historically black school, but scholarships weren't as competitive.
"I decided to go somewhere where I knew my education would be paid for because I didn't want to put myself or my grandfather in like a position to where I was struggling to pay for college and I knew that I wanted a real I guess sort of college experience," said Beans.
A graduate of Neshoba Central High School, Beans says she needed a college experience that would force her to grow outside of her social norms.
"I have learned to really be able to like leverage and negotiate myself to go into different spaces. Spaces where people look like me, where people think like me, spaces where they don't think like me, spaces where it's more than obvious that people don't want me. I needed to be somewhere where I'd be extremely uncomfortable," said Beans.
Valley State student, Deveon Treadway feels differently.
"I absolutely love the environment surrounded by your own where you can really build and where you can really understand people of your own kind. I get to learn a lot about our issues, about the good things about us, and I get to see what I want to do moving forward to change things in our whole community," said Treadway.
Although the number of students enrolling has declined, retaining students at HBCUs has also been an issue. Black schools awarded 35 percent of bachelor's degrees earned by black students in 1977. In 2016, the schools awarded 14 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=667
Tiana Ferrell started at Rust College in 2003. Because the historically black school in Holly Springs did not offer the major of her choice, she transferred to a predominantly white school. Ferrell's great-great-grandmother, civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, played an instrumental role in the founding of Rust, the state's first college for blacks in 1866.
"You know, I did feel like I was kind of ignoring my roots and turn my back on my people for a short while and then you know as I grew and matured I knew that I was able to help my community in other ways and that graduating from that particular HBCU was not my path," said Ferrell.
Ferrell also says the condition of aging buildings was a concern-- one that William Bynum, President of Jackson State University, calls "a facilities race."
"Predominantly white institutions, of course, are better funded and better endowed. As a result, they've been able to build better facilities. Students are exercising their choice because they have been brought up in better environments and better surroundings," said Bynum.
Even though HBCU's are lagging in the race to build better facilities, Bynum believes the institutions are better equipped to handle the unique needs of the modern black college student.
At black institutions, students are more likely to be the first in their family to attend college or from low-income households. In fact, historically black schools do a better job helping the lowest-income students become graduates with higher earnings as adults, according to the Brookings Institution.
Tougaloo President Beverly Wade Hogan believes things will turn around for HBCU's, but it won't happen on its own.
"All of us in our HBCU's must rethink our vision and our mission and how we approach that and we must take control of the messaging around our institutions to tell the impact and to let young people know the value of these historically black colleges and universities to our society," said Hogan.
Hogan also says they need to do more to reach out to future students at an earlier age.
"We're going to have to go into the schools more. We're going to have to build alliances with our public schools because that's where we draw our students. We're going to have to be there, not just at the end when they're graduating. We're going to have to be at the table working with principals on how you build a strong continuum of education," said Hogan.
Both presidents we talked to admit historically black colleges and universities have their share of challenges. However, both also say HBCU's offer black students an experience they won't get anywhere else. Ashley Norwood, MPB News.