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The Review of Higher Education 25.3 (2002) 315-330

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Uneven Stories:
Successful Black Collegians at a Black and a White Campus

Sharon Fries-Britt and Bridget Turner

The education of Black students in the United States has been influenced by a number of institutional and social reforms. Historically we moved from legally denying the education of Blacks, to separate but "equal" educational tracks, to the passage of desegregation laws, and through a series of civil rights movements. Most of these efforts tried to remedy patterns of injustice and discrimination and to increase educational opportunities for Blacks. Now, more than 47 years after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision, Black students can theoretically attend any type of educational institution in the United States. Yet even while access to a wide range of institutions has broadened somewhat, the experiences of Black students in different types of institutions remains uneven (Allen, 1992; J. Davis, 1998). [End Page 315]

Over the past 47 years, researchers have gained considerable knowledge about the successes and failures experienced by Black students attending either historically Black colleges and university (HBCUs) or traditionally White institutions (TWIs). Each environment produces advantages and disadvantages for Black students. Understanding more about their academic and social experiences is central to improving not only their college experience but their degree attainment rates. Equally important are the methods scholars have used to evaluate and study impediments to Black student success. Feagin and Sikes (1995) report:

Most assessments of the state of African-American students in predominantly White [and historically Black] colleges and universities have relied heavily on numbers, such as enrollment rates, grade point averages, and graduation rates. Yet a deeper examination of the experiences of Black students in these places requires something more than numbers gathered in school records and surveys or in classroom testing. We need to listen closely to what Black American students tell us about what happens to them and how they feel, act, and think. (p. 91; capitalization standardized)

Our study's findings supports Feagin and Sikes's recommendations. Through extensive interviews and focus groups, we examined the experiences of 34 Black juniors and seniors successfully persisting towards graduation at an HBCU and a TWI. The study's purpose was to identify experiences that both challenged and supported the academic success of these students. We based our questions about students' college experiences on a broad general framework of academic and social integration (Tinto, 1987, 1993). Tinto (1987) stresses the importance of both academic and social integration for student success and persistence to degree: "It is apparent that effective programs are those that are able to integrate individuals into the mainstream of the academic and social life of the institution in which those programs are housed" (p. 692).

Experiences of Black Students at HBCUs and TWIs

We know from previous research (Allen, 1992; J. Davis, 1998; R. Davis, 1991; Fleming, 1985) that Black students attending HBCUs are better integrated, academically and socially, than their peers at TWIs. Fleming (1985) found that HBCU students achieve twice as much intellectual development as their peers at TWIs as measured by enhanced involvement in the career process, greater satisfaction with academic life, and higher occupational aspirations. Students at HBCUs find academic support in professors who don't give up on them and who are convinced that they can be successful (Wagener & Nettles, 1998). Such support becomes visible in Black students' reports of good relationships with faculty and significantly higher GPAs than Blacks at TWIs (Allen & Haniff, 1991; R. Davis, 1991; Jackson & Swan, [End Page 316] 1991). HBCU students are also more likely to aspire to master's and doctoral degrees than Blacks at TWIs (Allen, 1992; Allen & Haniff, 1991; Wenglinsky, 1996).

While the literature portrays well-adjusted and engaged students on Black campuses, Allen (1987) found real differences in the academic preparation of students who attend HBCUs and TWIs. According to Allen (1987), Black students at HBCUs usually come from lower economic backgrounds, score lower on standardized tests, and are disadvantaged...


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