Joyce E. Davis
When Dr. Nichole Butler-Mooyoung was a freshman at the University of Miami in the late 1980s, she visited friends at Howard University in Washington, D.C., for one of Howard’s legendary homecomings.
By the next year, she had transferred to the renowned historically Black school, which boasts an impressive roster of alumni, including the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, Pultizer- and Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison and “Black Panther” star Chadwick Boseman.
“I walked on that campus and I said, ‘I have never seen anything like this in my life. Take me to the application office.’ And I got my application before I left,” said Butler-Mooyoung, an OB/GYN whose daughter, Skylar Mooyoung, is now a senior at Howard. “I had been at Miami a whole six weeks, but I said I’m coming to this place with all these Black people.”
Her experience is one that an increasing number of Black people want to share. There has been a dramatic recent increase in applications to historically Black colleges and universities — up 30% at some schools. Applications to Morehouse College, a men’s historically Black college in Atlanta, increased 60% in 2020, according to Date USA, a Deloitte company that aggregates data. Across the street at Spelman College for women, applications jumped to more than 11,000 in 2021, from 4,000 in 2014.
More Black Americans apply to HBCUs after George Floyd protests
Since the racial reckoning after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, HBCUs have gained significant visibility as mainstream America has looked more intentionally for ways to address systemic inequities that have led to disparities in educational opportunities for marginalized communities.
“The specialness is that we are intentional about this empowerment mode, when other spaces look at students from a deficit perspective. And we don’t,” professor Kimberly Jackson, chair of Spelman’s chemistry and biochemistry department, said of the school’s appeal. “When they come in, we tell them, ‘You have potential. We highlight Black female scholars at Spelman.’” She said HBCUs give academics the space to do culturally relevant work.
Black celebs put spotlight on HBCUs
HBCUs have also benefited from partnerships with and investment by major companies and wealthy individuals. Tennis legend Serena Williams and actor Michael B. Jordan collaborated in 2021 on a contest to award $1 million to an HBCU student with an outstanding business plan. In 2020, actor Kevin Hart provided $600,000 in scholarships to 18 qualifying HBCU students.
Former NFL star Deion Sanders donated a portion of his $300,000 base salary as head football coach at Jackson State University to a stadium project at that HBCU. Sanders was recently hired as head coach at Colorado, but his success at Jackson State — 27-6 in three seasons, two conference championships — was a boon for the school. A university spokesman said the Tigers athletic department generated the equivalent of $185 million in advertising and exposure in the first seven months of his leadership.
Filmmaker Will Packer, who produced the 2022 Academy Awards, made a $500,000 gift in 2021 to his alma mater, Florida A&M University, for an amphitheater now named for him. “Attending an HBCU was the best decision I ever made,” he said of his college experience.
“At FAMU, I found a competitive environment of like-minded individuals that felt equal parts safe, nurturing and driven. It was there I found my voice and passion for filmmaking.”
Skylar Mooyoung, who followed in her mother’s footsteps to Howard, said the attention paid to celebrity alumni is having a positive impact on HBCUs.
“With Kamala Harris being the vice president of the United States, people want to go to HBCUs more,” she said. “Not that I was ever trying to justify why I went to an HBCU, but I don’t have to anymore because everyone knows that (Howard) is her alma mater.”
Corporate America helps lift up HBCUs
Attention from top corporations matters too, she said. She remembers her freshman year in Howard’s School of Business, when she participated in a program in which Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing, Johnson & Johnson and JP Morgan Chase sponsored teams of students for the year. And she saw booths on campus “literally every day” staffed by corporation representatives recruiting for internships.
“We’re able to shadow them and learn about their different businesses,” she said. “I feel like that is being publicized more and people are realizing that when these companies are looking for top Black talent, they are going to HBCUs, and that may have an impact on why people are sending their kids there.”
Donations also help to enhance the educational experience. Philanthropist Mackenzie Scott gave more than $550 million to nearly two dozen HBCUs in 2020, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. Through their foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates have invested $100 million in HBCUs outside of what Microsoft as a company contributes. Apple continues to fund its now $130 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, which includes hubs for computer coding and creativity at 45 HBCUs.
In 2021, as part of a $120 million gift to HBCUs, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and wife Patricia Quillin contributed $40 million for scholarships at Spelman College. Spelman and Morehouse partnered with Bank of America to launch the Center for Black Entrepreneurship with a grant of $10 million. Cisco invested $5 million in the Black Economic Alliance, a partnership committed to advancing economic progress in Black communities.
Mastercard made a $5 million grant to Howard to create the Center for Applied Data Science and Analytics to address racial bias in credit approval processes, using artificial intelligence.
“HBCUs have long been vital institutions to create and position top Black talent to achieve prosperity for themselves and their families,” said Salah Goss, senior vice president at the Center for Inclusive Growth at Mastercard.
HBCUs praised for helping Black America succeed
Nadrea R. Njoku, director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund, founded nearly 80 years ago to empower Black students to attend college, agrees.
“When foundations, philanthropists, and local and federal governments responded to the racial reckoning, our institutions had already begun to identify the areas of support and systems needed to maintain these initiatives,” she said. “So ultimately, this period allowed for supporters who would not normally support HBCUs to see the positive results of their investments in real time.”
As for her experience, student Skylar Mooyoung said there is more to it. “One of the main benefits of being at an HBCU with all of these injustices and tragedies going on is I feel like we have the conversations in class, dissect them and break them down and tie them back to historical things in the past and how we’ve gotten to this point.
“We prioritize talking about current events as they pertain to Black people. I feel like if I went to a PWI (predominantly white institution), some people might be uncomfortable or not find it important enough to take time to talk about it.”