Experiences in PWI vs. HBCUs

My second child is beginning to think about colleges. I would love to hear about the experiences of other African-American students at both predominantly white institutions and also HBCUs since I am encouraging her to consider historically black colleges, but I don’t have any personal experience with them beyond having attended parties on Howard’s campus when I was an undergraduate a gazillion years ago. Frankly, much of my concern stems from anticipated change in demographics at some colleges that may occur after the imminent Supreme Court ruling. While she has attended PWIs her entire life, the schools have all had around 35-40% BIPOC students including about 10-15% black students. I am trying to imagine her thriving at a college in which the % of black students drops to the low single digits.

Part of my concern is certainly the social aspects of potentially being the only black kid in her dorm, clubs, and social activities. I am also a somewhat worried about that the sorts of lectures, readings, events, and performances that happen on college campuses might change with radical demographic changes. Currently, she seems interested in colleges in more rural or suburban settings, but if the campus demographics change, I would want her to consider attending college in or close to an urban area.

But even more than outside of the classroom experiences, I am concerned about how any seminar or discussion based class in the humanities, arts, or social sciences could have a thoughtful and informed conversation about the topics on their syllabi without the voices of students of color in the room or at the university. So for those of you who have had kids attend PWIs where BIPOC students were in the extreme minority in their classrooms, what was your kids’ experience in courses such as literature, sociology, and history? Did they syllabus include the work of diverse scholars? How did your student feel about class discussions? Did the professors carry most of the weight of in those discussions? Did your student feel obligated to translate readings or educate their classmates? I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around whether she can actually become well-educated in a setting where the voices of black students are missing.

For those of you with kids at HBCUs, how did the lack of non-black voices in the (humanities, social science and arts) classrooms impact your students’ experiences? I am interested in what you perceive to be any positive and negative aspects of their classroom experience. In particular, if your kid came out of mostly white K-12 schools, did attending a HBCU feel like a positive change or did they experience any unexpected negative aspects of attending a predominantly black institution for the first time?

I think either a PWI or a HBCU would be fine if my daughter wanted to go into a STEM field or if she wanted a college where most classes are large-ish lectures. However, I think she is leaning more to the humanities and I know that she wants a smaller liberal arts experience that would replicate her positive experience at boarding school. Obviously college will be a step up, and she’ll have to work hard no matter where she goes, but she is well prepared and thriving in high school so I think any place could be an academic fit in theory. Nevertheless, I would be curious about your students’ experience with networking, graduate school or job placements in both types of schools. Ideas of colleges to research are fine, but we are still early in the process. She is not generating a list yet. I just more curious about the differences you may have noted in general classroom experiences at predominantly white institutions and HBCUs.


My S20 is in his third year at a PWI out of state. When he applied, the African-American enrollment was about 3.5% at that university. Now it is about 4.5%. I’ll try to address some of your comments and questions with his so-far experience.

For background, I’ll add that for K-12, my son attended schools that were all roughly 1/3 AA, 1/3 white, and 1/3 Hispanic. His best friends at various times were white, black, north African, US born Hispanic, Middle Eastern, etc. Though I’d say most of his K-12 friends were AA. He played in youth leagues that were 75%-90% white.

More background. Most of my family attended and/or taught at HBCUs. My father was a professor at several. My mother, father, siblings, step-father, uncles, aunts, grandparents, all attended HBCUs. And most of my AA friends.

I tried to get my son to consider HBCUs. Initially, he was not interested. It didn’t help that when we visted PWIs, the buildings were picture perfect, the landscaping was usually pristine, and the arenas and student unions were mall-like enticing. Yet when we visited HBCUs, the surface impression mostly went from not-as-enticing all the way down to almost unappealing.

Nonetheless, I convinced him to include several HBCUs in his application cycle. By the time results started to come in, he was more open to HBCUs and actually liked two or three very much. Basically, his feelings evolved from NO WAY to HMMMMM to I LIKE THESE ONES.

This is a lot right here. First, it is possible to thrive. I am hesitant to predict how possible for any specific student. As with all things concerning college, this is going to be vary from student to student.

Freshman year, nearly all (except one) my son’s regular group of friends were white. He ended up in a 3-friend group with him and two white freshmen male students in his dorm. The three went out together, he played basketball with one in groups, and played golf and guitar with the other.

Sophomore year, they all roomed together. Over the course of that year the 3-friend group sort of dissolved. I would say cultural+SES differences created difficulties that distanced them from him. By Junior year, he decided to room with an AA friend. They get along well and there are no cultural or SES difficulties.

Lectures. Ohhhhhhhh lectures. My son was often the only black student in a class, or one of two. He felt very uncomfortable in classes where race topics came up and every other student looked to him to comment. He was stunned at how little 99% (his statistic) of his white classmates knew about things like the history of slavery, Jim Crow, or anything like that. He got the impression most were learning about things like Reconstruction for the first time ever.

He didn’t have his first black professor until fall of his Junior year. That guy immediately became his favorite of his time in college so far. That class has been his favorite by far of his time in college. Probably moreso than with students, faculty representation turned out to be very important for my son. Almost all of his professors have been good, and the sociological classes were diverse in subject, but my son’s appreciation for that class with the AA professor told me a lot about how important it was for him to see a black professor leading the class.

He’s still a student so I can’t comment much. I can say his PWI has a very good career counseling reputation, and he has been presented with opportunities for networking, internships, etc. He hasn’t done any internships yet, but is lining up one for this summer.

Basically, my son is not unhappy with his decision to attend his PWI. Yet, he sometimes says he wonders what it would have been like to attend a HBCU. I get the feeling he thinks he might have enjoyed attending an HBCU more. Mostly because he feels there is a lack of social options at his PWI, less because of the educational aspects. But as each semester passes, he enjoys his classes more and more, as they advance from gen-ed to more in-depth type learning.

Hope that helps. Good luck with your daughter!


Be sure to consider that some colleges that are not HBCUs are also not (or no longer) PWIs, and how the concerns mentioned would apply to them.


Both of my kids started off at the elementary school level with a school that had about 35% BIPOC but the demographics slowly shifted to become even more diverse (Their former high school, the 2nd largest in GA just reached a plurality of African American students this year, with 32% Black, 29% White, 18% Asian, 17% Hispanic, and 4% covering mixed race students/Native American/Pacific Islander). But if I were looking at the demographics of the classes they took, they were less diverse, especially among the upper level AP STEM classes that they both took. My oldest had 3 classes that she was really championed in high school (AP Literature AP Calculus BC and AP CS), but in general was mostly overlooked throughout high school. My son is very quiet so he was overlooked everywhere (besides AP Physics).

Both chose Howard University, but have had vastly different experiences. Neither of my kids are the “party loving” type (unlike dear old Dad who never missed one while attending Morehouse). But my recent graduate (HU22) really embraced being around so many talented Black people and enjoyed the diaspora of different viewpoints, the ingenuity, and the hustle/determination of students that she saw at Howard. Not only was she inspired by what she witnessed, but she also gained confidence and a belief in herself that I believe came from being “championed everywhere” while also being of “service” to her community. She enjoyed taking classes outside of her STEM major (took Arabic, Religion, Philosophy, Creative Writing, etc) and I believe some of those discussions have given her perspectives that she had never encountered. She ended up being a top award winning student (1 of 40 Howard students selected to Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society, won departmental awards, National Research conference award, selected to compete at National poetry contest, etc.) while also taking multiple trips outside of the country with friends that have become family. She was just so HAPPY, which I believe fueled her academic and social successes.

My HU24 student has done well academically (3.6 GPA so far), but he has had a mixed reaction to Howard and the HBCU experience. While my oldest did not really complain about some of the negatives she saw, my younger student actually thought about transferring due to early struggles adjusting to some things that probably occur at other HBCUs. Some of the issues were more about being on a large urban campus. Others challenges were things that happen at lots of schools (Fire alarms going off at 3am, cold water while taking a shower, dealing with a party culture, and sometimes feeling that he should be learning more). My HU24 is more like a 80 year old man in a 21 year old body so he slowly started adapting to a lot of these challenges and is starting enjoy his time, but I have noticed that his circle of friends is very small and that he is just not getting the same overall experience (partially because he does not put himself “out there” when it comes to taking interesting discussion classes or taking advantage of some of the great opportunities that Howard has to offer).

Good luck to your daughter…


Just wanted to say that I appreciate the discussion in this thread and, in particular, the insight ChangeTheGame always provides. My student will be attending HU in Fall 2023. And though I don’t know where on the continuum they’ll land, I appreciate the perspective that different kinds of kids might be able to find their place.


It sounds like your daughter has had a fantastic experience. That is wonderful.

Is your son happy with his classes at Howard? It seems like socially, it has been a bit of a mixed bag simply because he is quieter and perhaps more of an introvert than your daughter? If some of it is just a quieter personality, do you think the same challenges would have occurred at a PWI as well? Sometimes I tell my kids, “wherever you go, there you are.” I’m not usually talking about college, but just in general. Still those of us who are introverts, are going to need some alone time, which is hard to get at any college. I had a difficult social experience in college though I thrived academically and loved my classes, but I don’t really think that was about the college that I attended at all. It was more about who I was as a young adult. I suspect that I would have been better off with a gap year (or several).

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I would say that my son’s classes (CS Major) have been a mixed bag as well. Part of the issue is that he had only taken 2 in-person CS classes in his 1st 5 semesters (Howard has been conservative during the pandemic and most larger classes have been remote). He has had some group projects that he has not been happy with the contributions of some of his partners and he has lamented that remote classes have fostered a culture of cheating that has really bothered him (he really only cares about learning new things so he doesn’t even understand why someone would attempt to cheat).

Overall, he has been happy with the professors and the content of his classes, but he has had at least 1 major class that he felt was not preparing him for the rigors of the real world, so he has been supplementing class learning with teaching himself beyond the rigors of that particular class. My son is definitely an introvert and I do think that he would have had some issues connecting at any school, but I now believe that Morehouse would have probably been a better fit, because he would have had his car and been able to keep in better contact with friends in our Atlanta suburb. A school like Morehouse is also smaller, on a more “self contained” campus, and has mostly had in-person classes which would have been a benefit for him. The current semester is the 1st time that he is taking all of his classes in-person at Howard and I believe that will make a difference for him.

The areas of frustration with most Howard parents and students (just giving you an early heads up) deals with navigating some of the administrative tasks (registration for classes and dealing with any financial aid discrepancies) and housing (Housing is only guaranteed for 2 years for the vast majority of students and off-campus apartments close to campus are pretty expensive).


Thank you so much for starting this topic. I’m looking forward to reading others’ perspectives on this.

I am not the ideal person to talk, but I’ll share anyway. My experiences have all been in PWIs, with no HBCU experience. I will say that something I found instrumental to my adjustment to college was a program where I came to campus early among a small group of students (IIRC, about 300 students when there were about 27k undergrads). It In this particular program, we signed up for one 3-credit class that was capped at 20 students, but I think programs where there’s an outdoors camping experience or community service project, or whatever would also work. But even though I didn’t have super-close buddies by the end of that program, I had started to build a network (and ended up becoming lifelong close friends with two of the people in that program). Without that program, though, I am much less optimistic about how well my transition to college would have gone as I wasn’t making as many friends in my classes, had a bad roommate situation, and a dorm floor with mostly upperclassmen with established social groups.

I think this would be helpful at either a PWI or HBCU, but particularly at a PWI where blacks are very under-represented. You can start to find the people that you feel you can trust, regardless of their skin color, whereas if you’re dumped into a big pool of people who look nothing like you, it can sometimes be hard to figure out in the beginning, especially for more introverted types.

My current workplace is probably close to 50% black, which is the highest proportion I’ve ever worked in. There are many HBCU alums and a lot of Divine 9 representation, too. There is a certain degree of comfort working here that I’ve never experienced before, and I suspect that the demographic composition plays a part. I’m not a token sample, I’m not the representative for a race, or even just people of color.

I would also investigate to see what a campus’ “black” population is like. Are these black immigrants (or 2nd gens) from Africa and the Caribbean? These students often have a different cultural mindset than African-Americans from the U.S. And there’s also the importance that socioeconomic differences make within the African-American population, too.
Obviously, the ideal is to have as many different subgroups of black students. But are certain sub-populations more critical to your D’s experience than others?

As @ChangeTheGame mentioned, how a school’s demographics play out in classes can also be a very different thing (i.e. larger percentage school-wide, but not in the classes one is taking). I’d also check out what the student mix looks like in the areas of your daughter’s interests, in case it’s not representative of the whole school, and it matters to her.


This kind of pre-Frosh co-hort was instrumental in my African American daughter finding her people at Stanford. She attended SSEA, for URM and women and FLI engineering students, the summer prior to Freshman year. It ran simultaneously with a FLI summer program. I think there were about 75 in each group and she made good friends—including upperclassmen who were RAs or CAs for the program that have proved invaluable in getting good advice throughout her time at Stanford.

She also tells me that her number one “support” for knowing what is going on academically and socially and navigating things is the “Black at Stanford” chat.