Despite overall enrollment declines at U.S. colleges between 2014 and 2017, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) during that time frame saw their application volume jump by 20 percent and their first-year enrollment increase from 36,000 to 41,000 students. Women-only colleges reported similar growth, enrolling 13,000 students in 2017, up from 9,000 three years earlier.
While acknowledging that there are many reasons students choose an HBCU or women-only college, including their tendency to have smaller class sizes, lower tuition, and strong academics, The New York Times writes that “few doubt that recent interest is related to the current political climate”—the so-called “Trump bump.”
In search of ‘safe spaces’
“I chose an HBCU because I felt safe—especially now during the Trump presidency, it’s scary to go out in a world where you feel less than human, and people close to my age are being murdered for the color of their skin,” said Jourdan Clark, a student at Dillard University, a historically Black college in New Orleans.
Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs, estimates that until three years ago, she fielded roughly eight phone calls and emails per year from parents and students considering HBCUs. Across the past three years, she has fielded 80-100 inquiries annually from parents asking, “Do you think it would be better for my child to go to an HBCU in the current political climate?” and students asking “Do you think I will be safer at an HBCU?”
Preliminary findings from a research study reinforce these anecdotes. Commenting on the investigation—which reflects survey and interview responses from dozens of students at Howard and Clark Atlanta universities, both HBCUs—study co-author Robert T. Palmer, an associate professor at Howard, says he has been “shocked at how many [students] said the racialized rhetoric of Trump led them to seek an HCBU….They wanted to be in a safe space.”
Some question whether students ultimately benefit
Critics, meanwhile, challenge the benefit of such “safe spaces,” saying they don’t prepare students for the “real world.” But advocates point to evidence that HBCUs and single-sex colleges offer many academic and social benefits. Gallup research shows that alumni of HBCUs report better experiences overall than students at predominantly white colleges; students at HBCUs are almost twice as likely to say that their university prepared them well for post-graduate life.
Research also shows that, compared with co-ed institutions, women’s colleges more effectively encourage women to become involved with campus organizations and seek leadership positions. “When I applied to college it was 2016, and the election stuff was heating up,” said Faith Wykle, a student at Smith College, an all-women’s school. “What that showed me was the massive issues our country still faces with sexism and bias. It cast a light on things. I felt like this was a place I could be challenged, but also grow.”
Supporters also counter claims that HBCUs and women’s colleges segregate themselves. “A black student at an HBCU will have a much better chance of having a white professor than a white student at a predominantly white institution will have of having a black professor,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard. In addition, most women’s colleges colleges have partnerships with coed universities.