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The Review of Higher Education 25.3 (2002) 349-358

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Black Colleges and College Choice:
Characteristics of Students Who Choose HBCUs

Kassie Freeman and Gail E. Thomas


While researchers know a great deal about the experiences of African Americans in different types of higher education institutions (e.g, Allen, 1992; Epps, 1972; Fleming, 1984; Nettles, 1988; Wilson, 1994), curiously less is known about the characteristics of African American students who choose to attend HBCUs. Our intent in this research is to increase researchers' and educators' understanding of African American high school students who choose to attend HBCUs. We examine the characteristics of students who [End Page 349] chose to attend HBCUs in the past and compare them with students who are currently choosing to attend HBCUs.

To deepen our understanding of these students, this study examines three questions: (a) How are African American high school students who currently choose HBCUs different from those who have historically attended HBCUs? (b) Who and/or what influences their consideration of HBCUs? (c) What challenges will HBCUs face in continuing to attract a broad range of African American students? We compare some research in Thomas's (1981) early edited volume, which was a forerunner in studies of African Americans' participation in education, with Freeman's (1997, 1999) more recent research, which has focused on African Americans' college choices.

This comparison is significant in three ways. First, Thomas's edited volume reviewed quantitative data and Freeman focused on qualitative data. It is therefore noteworthy and more thorough to construct the similarities and differences in outcomes by examining the findings from different methods and from a historical perspective. Second, as William Trent indicated in his presentation at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in 2000, we need both methods (quantitative and qualitative) to fully comprehend the picture and story of African American students. Finally, this comparison is important because it helps to develop a composite of the data and challenges facing HBCUs in recruiting African American students.

Because African American students today have more choices in the institutions they can attend, it is important to better understand the characteristics of those choosing to attend HBCUs. There is a general perception that African Americans who choose to attend HBCUs are less well prepared academically and therefore have fewer options. This research explores this assumption.

Knowing more about the characteristics of African Americans who choose to attend HBCUs is also useful to admissions officers at HBCUs. Some HBCUs have a goal of increasing their enrollments (Benavides, 1996), and HBCUs are seeking ways to attract top African American high school graduates to their institutions. Furthermore, to better understand the retention at various higher education institutions, it is helpful to understand how students made their selections in the first place. Academic and social integration is more easily achieved if students are committed to the higher education institution they selected to attend.

HBCU Matriculation: A Historical Overview

According to Davis (1998), it is very important to understand the historical context of HBCUs because "the present situation of these schools and their students cannot be understood and appreciated without some [End Page 350] knowledge of historical events that influenced the development and current state of these institutions" (p. 144). When the first Black colleges were founded over 150 years ago, they filled an important gap in the educational terrain of Black America (Willie & Edmonds, 1978). As early as 1837, these institutions exhibited a remarkable capacity for survival, serving as a cultural and intellectual enclave for America's Black populace (Murty & Roebuck, 1993).

During the decade following the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), it became evident that a system of formal education must be established to meet the relevant needs and conditions of the newly freed Black citizens (Bullock, 1967). "Education, then, according to the more liberal and dominant segments of missionary philanthropists, was intended to prepare a college-bred Black leadership to uplift the Black masses from the legacy of slavery and the restraints of the postbellum caste system" (Anderson, 1988, pp...