Does Essence ‘Best Colleges for Black Students’ List Help or Hurt HBCUs?

Essence Magazine has teamed up with Money Magazine to produce a ‘Best Colleges for African-Americans’ list, and like most lists, it starts and ends with the same Ivy League colleges which are more known for the black students they keep out, instead of those which they admit.

The list seems honest in its objectives; earn a bunch of clicks to the website and have HBCU alumni and students rejoice at the fact that several of our schools made a list built upon metrics of accessibility, affordability, graduation rates and post-graduate earnings.

But a closer look reveals that Essence has deployed a pro-PWI, typical college ranking system, frightening in its similarity to the one President Barack Obama tried to use to redirect federal funds away from HBCUs and other minority serving institutions, and eventually scrapped after nearly universal critique from non-Ivy League black and predominantly white colleges nationwide.

Lets look at the outlying institutions first on the list, starting with the top ten.

  • Princeton University

  • Harvard University

  • Duke University

  • Cornell University

  • Florida A&M University

  • Spelman College

  • University of Pennsylvania

  • Yale University

  • North Carolina A&T State University

  • University of Maryland, College Park

Seven predominantly white colleges, all but one private, and all which have battled intense public scrutiny for mistreatment and racial isolation of black students on campus.

Of the three HBCUs, two are land-grant, flagship institutions and one is private. All three black colleges have extensive development in programs like engineering, computer science and agriculture — areas where graduates can make great entry-level earnings.

Spelman is one of the most, if not the most selective HBCU in the country when it comes to enrollment standards, while FAMU and NCA&T are among the largest HBCUs in the country, with larger pools of black students with which to navigate potential gains or losses in graduation rates.

The list only requires for a school to field at least a five-percent black enrollment, and makes no consideration for the average profile which dictates if a student will enroll, complete and go on to make big money — specifically, household income and major.

Now let’s look at the bottom ten institutions.

  • Northwestern University

  • Binghamton University

  • Emory University

  • North Carolina Central University

  • Tennessee State University

  • Towson University

  • Stony Brook University

  • Barnard College

  • Winston-Salem State University

  • Talladega College

  • Rutgers University-Newark

The bottom fifth of the list features one more HBCU than the top, and again shows a model which seems to favor schools with programs in applied science or professional industry that mesh well with the jobs and industries surrounding their campuses.

In short, the list teaches us that an Ivy League university is the best place for you if you are black, don’t mind constant overt racism, can afford more expensive tuition (outside of scholarships and grants), and are among the 10–15 percent in your high school graduating class. Never mind if you want to be an artist, civil servant, teacher, social worker, or any other profession which HBCUs successfully graduate at higher rates than any other school enrolling the same kind of student; S.T.E.M. training and hanging out with white people is how to make it in America.

That there are as many Ivy League or upper tier private colleges as HBCUs on the list (16 for each category), says a lot; not just about how America thinks of higher education, but the ways in which black folks share and internalize the narrative.

How can schools which generally reject a majority of black applicants and mistreat the black geniuses which they do admit be considered anywhere close to being the best for “us?” Many of the PWIs on this list boast shameful records on black hiring and promotion among faculty ranks, have limited research output on black issues, and have no record of social mobility for black people facing race-specific disparities across a range of social indicators.

But they are what’s best for us?

What about the colleges which admit the nation’s largest shares of students classifying as low-income, first-generation or full-time employed with family to care for? What about those who classify in all three categories? What about the political, social and economic innovations conceptualized and actualized within black communities, only because black colleges are located within them?

Those are the schools that are best for black students — the schools which demonstrate that black communities can drive scholarship, innovation and representation from within their borders. Everything, and every other institution outside of that, is a quota scheme masquerading as a diverse campus, with the primary concern being the federal dollars and recognition that comes with the illusion of integrated space.

Essence deserves credit for creating a venue of exposure for several black colleges. But this list, by nature of bearing the Essence brand alone, irresponsibly divorces the narrative of PWI struggles with black students, while doing little to showcase HBCUs as an elite college option for the country.