Episode 156: They Teach Happiness at Yale

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

This is the fourth episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. Today, we are taking a look inside the ivy-covered walls of Yale University, but I think you will be very surprised about why we are taking that look. I know that many of you parents listening today have kids who have their hearts set on attending Yale or one of the other Ivy League universities or one of the other highly selective universities next fall. And I know that many of them won’t get to do that–not because they weren’t qualified to do it, but because too many other equally qualified kids also wanted to do it. But the perceived greatness of Yale’s academic program is not what we are going to look at today. Instead, we are going to look at just one Yale course, which happens to be Yale’s single most popular course ever offered?that is, the most popular course in Yale’s 316 years, and it’s being offered right now.

1. Happiness Is a Course?

In a provocative New York Times article in late January, David Schimer tells the story of PSYC 157 Psychology and the Good Life, a course that currently enrolls about 1,200 students, or almost one-quarter of Yale undergraduates. And this is not a required freshman seminar, as so many colleges have. Here is what Mr. Schimer says:

The course, taught by Prof. Laurie Santos, 42, a psychology professor and the head of one of Yale’s residential colleges, tries to teach students how to lead a happier, more satisfying life in twice-weekly lectures.

“Students want to change, to be happier themselves, and to change the culture here on campus,” Dr. Santos said in an interview.

“With one in four students at Yale taking it, if we see good habits, things like students showing more gratitude, procrastinating less, increasing social connections, we’re actually seeding change in the school’s culture.” (quoted from the article)

What? A kinder, gentler Yale? A course about how to be happy? It sounds crazy, at first, but maybe she is onto something. The article continues:

Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time at the school. (quoted from the article)

Wow. That is concerning to all of us, but especially to parents of Yale hopefuls or parents of kids who want to go to another 25 universities that are just as selective and just as challenging. And with the news we hear every day on our televisions, the mental health of students of all ages is increasingly a worry for all of us.

So, what is in this course (for which parents are paying a hefty Yale tuition price tag)? What is in this course that some students see as “a relaxed lecture with few requirements” (quoted from the article)? Here is what Mr. Schimer reports:

The course focuses both on positive psychology–the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos–and behavioral change, or how to live by those lessons in real life. Students must take quizzes, complete a midterm exam, and, as their final assessment, conduct what Dr. Santos calls a “Hack Yo’Self Project,” a personal self-improvement project?.

But while others might see easy credits, Dr. Santos refers to her course as the “hardest class at Yale”: To see real change in their life habits, students have to hold themselves accountable each day, she said.

She hopes that the social pressures associated with taking a lecture with friends will push students to work hard without provoking anxiety about grades. Dr. Santos has encouraged all students to enroll in the course on a pass-fail basis, tying into her argument that the things Yale undergraduates often connect with life satisfaction–a high grade, a prestigious internship, a good-paying job–don’t increase happiness at all.

“Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade–are totally wrong,” Dr. Santos said?.

“We have this moment where we can make a difference in Yale’s culture, where students feel like they are part of a movement and fighting the good fight,” she said. (quoted from the article)

Well, that is an interesting take on happiness, and I have to wonder what the parents of those students are thinking. While no one wants to see kids overstressed to the point of mental health crises and while I know for a fact that many of those kids had way-too-intense high school years as they tried to get themselves prepared for Ivy League college applications, I am wondering why high grades and great internships and well-paying jobs can’t actually increase happiness. Certainly, not by themselves; but not at all?

Of course, taking off some of the pressure for high grades at Yale (or any other college) is fine by me. You will recall that we have talked about alternative grading practices at colleges as recently as five episodes ago in Episode 151. All of those alternative grading practices–some of which are used by very selective colleges–seem like a reasonable accommodation to kids who have worked too hard for too long and perhaps have lost sight of the value of learning apart from the value of getting a high grade. For some kids, the constant anxiety about getting high grades can thankfully end in college; but, for those who plan on graduate school or medical school or law school, I am afraid that they will be under the gun for another four years. Can Dr. Santos’s course help them with that? I would hope so.

2. Yale’s Response

While admitting how incredibly popular PSYC 157 has turned out to be, the Yale administration has had an interesting reaction. Here is what will happen next year at Yale, as Mr. Schimer writes:

Offering such a large class has come with challenges, from assembling lecture halls to hiring the 24 teaching fellows required. Because the psychology department lacked the resources to staff it fully, the fellows had to be drawn from places like Yale’s School of Public Health and law school. And with so many undergraduates enrolled in a single lecture, Yale’s hundreds of other classes–particularly those that conflict with Dr. Santos’s–may have seen decreased enrollment?.

Dr. Santos said she does not plan to offer the course again. Dr. [Woo-Kyoung] Ahn [director of undergraduate studies in psychology]?said, “Large courses can be amazing every once in a while, but it wouldn’t be fair to other courses and departments to take all of their students away.”

She added, “It causes conflict, and we can’t afford to offer this every year in terms of teaching fellows and resources.” (quoted from the article)

So, it was great while it lasted–or at least while other professors didn’t get too annoyed about the decrease in enrollment in their less-popular courses or administrators didn’t have to figure out the logistics of offering it. So, just how important is the mental health of the students or didn’t the professors and administrators think that the course was meeting that goal? I am sure that we will never know the answer to that question.

3. Your Response

In case you want to take a closer look at Dr. Santos’s idea or in case you want your kid to do so, “a multipart seminar-style series on the course material–filmed last year in her home and titled “The Science of Well-Being”–will soon be available for free on Coursera, an online education platform” (quoted from the article).

But, more to the point, please do keep in mind the mental health of your kid–both now in that last critical year or two of high school and then when he or she heads off for college, as so many of your kids will do this fall. Take a glance back at Episode 137, which focused on the importance of college support services for kids (like more than half of undergraduates at Yale) who need and seek mental health counseling while in college.

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider–especially if your kid identifies with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, or students with learning disabilities. And now, I would add, especially if your kid is going to a highly selective university, filled with bright, hardworking, overstressed, and likely anxious students.

As Randy Newman’s theme song for the great television show Monk says, “It’s a jungle out there.”

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 155: Foreign Languages and College Admissions

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

This is the third episode in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally. But today, we are actually going to talk about some new data out about high schools because those data have implications for college-going, I believe. To be fair, I already knew a lot about today’s topic, but I did not know the data we are going to share with you now–and I think the situation is really very troubling.

1. A Look Back at Foreign Languages

Last August, we took a look at this topic, but I would like to reprise it today. The topic is the study of foreign languages in U.S. high schools. Those of you who are regular listeners know how important I think this topic is, probably stemming from my work a couple of decades ago with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages on a nationwide study of foreign language teaching in elementary and secondary schools and on the writing of a book of exemplary foreign language programs.

Let me repeat here a few alarming statistics from an Education Week article last June by Corey Mitchell:

  • The American Councils for International Education estimates that 10.6 million K-12 U.S. students study a world language or American Sign Language. That sounds like a lot of students, but it is actually just 20 percent of American students.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of students in at least two states study a language other than English.
  • Arabic is the fastest-growing second language among U.S. residents, but only 0.25 percent of American students who study a foreign language study Arabic in school.
  • Less than 1 percent of American students who study a foreign language are studying either Russian or Japanese, two languages that seem relatively important these days politically and/or economically.
  • Only 11 states require credits in foreign languages in order to graduate from high school.

Some of those numbers actually make me want to weep.

2. The Story in Oklahoma

So, imagine my dismay when I read a recent article in the Education Week Curriculum Matters blog by Stephen Sawchuk, who opened with this sad news:

In just a decade, a fourth of Oklahoma’s high schools eliminated their world language courses, the investigative reporting site Oklahoma Watch reports in a fascinating new story. Overall, a third of [Oklahoma] high schools lack a course in even one foreign language.

It’s a compelling piece of education data made bleaker by the fact that the decline in foreign language in Oklahoma probably has parallels in other states?.

What’s more, reporter Jennifer Palmer found, the declines are both in the “level II” instruction (usually given in sophomore year), and even more catastrophically in year III or advanced classes, such as AP courses. Having such a class can be a deciding factor in application decisions at elite colleges.

Not all schools are equally affected, she notes: Rural schools bore the brunt of the cuts, likely because they weren’t able to get teachers to fill the spots. (quoted from the article)

Well, there is a lot to talk about there, thanks to Mr. Sawchuk. First, let’s consider the fact that, in the past 10 years, one-quarter of all Oklahoma high schools stopped offering foreign languages, and now one-third of all Oklahoma high schools do not offer any. Frankly, I cannot imagine a high school that offers no foreign language courses–not just because foreign languages can be important for college admissions, but because they are even more important for living in a global society, for understanding cultures other than our own, and perhaps eventually for working in another country or for working with people in another country doing business with American businesses. Kids who are going to college will have another chance to study a language; kids who don’t go to college won’t. High school is their last chance.

Second, the decline worsens as the courses get more advanced. No surprise there, and that’s undoubtedly always been true. Clearly, fewer and fewer kids take foreign languages as the courses get more advanced, and that goes for all languages and all states and all school districts. Many schools no longer offer a fourth year of a language, and too many also don’t offer the third year of a language. And yes, elite colleges do still look at the depth of a student’s foreign language study, hoping for at least three years of study in one language.

But again, three or four years of language study is not important just for college admissions. They are important because two years of language study is not nearly enough to make students even marginally proficient in a language, as I learned when working with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. The truth is that kids struggle mightily after even three and four years of high school study, but two years just is not enough. Even knowing that, colleges will sometimes look kindly enough on two years of each of two different languages instead of three years of one (especially if your high school does not offer three years of one). But offering two languages must seem like an idea from outer space to high schools in Oklahoma and elsewhere that can’t offer even one year of one language.

And third, of course, rural schools in Oklahoma were most often affected–not only because of the difficulty of recruiting foreign language teachers, but also because of the difficulty of filling courses often considered as elective courses in high schools with small enrollments. I don’t have some snappy solution for that. Online instruction is the solution that is probably used most often. I have seen it, and I am not overly impressed. Is it better than no foreign language instruction? Yes, it is–at least for meeting state high school graduation requirements and college admission requirements.

3. What You Must Do

I am working with a rural school district right now, and we are getting ready to look at the high school curriculum offerings. I am anxious to see how we will solve the problem of offering good foreign language instruction, but I believe that it is a problem worth solving. And I believe that, if parents allow their voices to be heard in that school district, we will have to try harder to solve it. Fortunately, I will be there to speak on behalf of those parents, but I can’t be everywhere.

So, parents, you are going to have to speak up for yourselves and your own kids. That is especially true if your kid attends a rural school–though, by the way, not all urban and suburban schools do a good job of offering foreign languages, either.

And I am not just picking on Oklahoma. I love Oklahoma and have actually done a lot of work in Oklahoma. In fact, it is home to one of my favorite museums and museum gift shops in the U.S. Here is a plug for that truly beautiful facility, quoted from its own website:

The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, commonly known as Gilcrease Museum, located in Tulsa, Okla., is one of the country’s best facilities for the preservation and study of American art and history. The museum houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West, including an unparalleled collection of Native American art and material.

As the early statistics we quoted said, 39 states do not require foreign language study for high school graduation and (probably as a sad consequence) only 20 percent of U.S. students study a foreign language or American Sign Language. This is not an Oklahoma problem.

But this is not just a state problem, either. In many schools that do offer foreign languages, kids are not taking them. And they certainly aren’t taking three or four years of one language. So, parents, that is where you come in, and I am hoping it will be easier for you to influence your own kid than to try to influence an entire school district.

Convince your kid to take four years of a foreign language in high school (assuming that your high school makes four years available and, if not, encourage your kid to take three years or, as a last resort, to take two years of one language and two years of another language). We have said in many other episodes how important it is to show a college that a student has taken a rigorous set of high school courses–indeed, the most rigorous set of courses that the high school makes available. Usually, that is translated into taking four years of math and four years of science, especially when those four years can include calculus and physics. But, for some students–and your kid might be one of them–four years of a foreign language might be a lot more attainable than calculus.

I understand that the recent push for STEM instruction nationwide is one more thing that might drive out foreign language instruction in high schools. As a matter of fact, the STEM high school that we co-founded almost 10 years ago faced that problem of how to offer foreign language courses and how to get them into the students’ already jam-packed Early College schedule that focused on engineering and architecture. But at least we had a New York State requirement for foreign language study for high school graduation, so we had to solve the problem.

In the final analysis, parents, not convincing your kid to take three or four years of a foreign language is what causes schools to stop offering them and teachers to stop training to teach them. It is a vicious cycle. So, keep your kid in foreign language courses not just to get your kid into college; do it for a lot of other great reasons, too. As I said in our episode last August, I?with my four years of high school Latin and my three years of high school French–will now get off my soapbox. (And, yes, I took both languages in college, too.)

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 154: Instant College Admission Decisions

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

This is the second in our new series of things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  I think this is a case of the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.  Even though we have worked with colleges for a living for decades, we have learned a lot doing our 150-plus episodes, and we hope you have, too.

Today’s episode focuses on something that I did not know existed:  instant college admission decisions, which sound like a great stress-reliever to me.  Because who wants to apply to a college on January 1 and wait three months to get an answer!  So, while many students solve that waiting problem by applying under Early Action or Early Decision plans, thus shortening their wait time to perhaps six weeks or so in November and December, other students are taking advantage of instant decisions.  Here’s the story, thanks to Kelly Mae Ross and her article last December for U.S. News & World Report.

1.  What Are These Things?

So, what are instant decision days?  They are exactly what they sound like.  They are events held at high schools or colleges for prospective freshmen, staffed by a college’s admission officer, who interviews prospective students for a short period of time (as little as 15 minutes) and provides an admission decision on the spot.

The interview allows a prospective student to explain little glitches in his or her academic record as well as to elaborate on personal and academic accomplishments.  It also gives a prospective student a chance to ask questions about the college.  Because the interview is so short, students need not be too nervous.  And because the interview is quick and somewhat informal, students need not go overboard dressing up.  According to Ms. Ross’s article, Kasey Urquidez, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs advancement and dean of undergraduate admissions at the University of Arizona, commented, “I can say for our team, [student dress is] not something we’re looking at whatsoever.  So dress as a student–it’s what we expect.” (quoted from the article)

(Of course, I am going to add here that students should not dress like slobs, either.  I can live with “business casual” attire–just short of a tie and jacket for young men, for example.  Furthermore, students should remember that a speedy, seemingly informal event still requires that standard formal slang-free English be spoken.)

While financial aid packages might not be provided on the spot at the time of the instant decision, a newly accepted student can at least get advice on what to do next to secure financial assistance.

And here’s a plus:  Some colleges will waive the application fee for instant decision applicants.  So, that could save you a few bucks, which never hurts.

And here’s another plus:  When these instant decision events are held on the college campus rather than at your kid’s high school, some colleges offer students a campus tour and the chance to meet current students–all accomplished in one jam-packed day.

And here’s perhaps the biggest plus:  Instant admission decisions are not binding.  That means, of course, that a student can continue to apply to other colleges or continue to wait to hear from other colleges before making an enrollment decision.

Not surprisingly, some colleges require that a prospective student complete the application in advance (which seems reasonable).  Some colleges have minimum academic standards that prospective students must meet in order to participate in an instant decision event (which seems reasonable, too).  And some colleges permit instant decisions for just some, but not all, of their degree programs (which also seems okay to me).

But the bottom line is this:  There is just no downside to taking part in one of these instant decision days if a college your kid is interested in makes one available.

2.  What Colleges Have Them?

So, what colleges have them?  It’s not surprising that highly selective colleges do not offer instant decision events.  But Ms. Ross’s article spotlights one that does:  Millersville University of Pennsylvania.  With 7,000 undergraduate students, Millersville is a public university located in rural Lancaster County, in the heart of Amish country, though not too far a drive from Philadelphia.  Founded as a teacher’s college in 1855, Millersville now offers more than 100 undergraduate programs of study.  Out-of-state tuition is about $22,000 per year?rather reasonable, when compared to private colleges. Admissions standards are also quite reasonable, given its public mission as part of the 14-campus system of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (which is a separate state system from the more selective Pennsylvania State University (of football fame) system).  The Millersville freshman class profile shows an average SAT of 1050, an average ACT composite of 22, and a high school GPA average of 3.4. And, according to its own Fast Facts on its website, 95 percent of graduates are employed within six months.

While the freshman class profile statistics indicate that Millersville is not a highly selective institution, having a positive instant admission decision in a student’s pocket from a solid public university is not a bad way to relieve the stress of the college application process. And, in her article, Ms. Ross quotes Brian Hazlett, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at Millersville, as saying that students who do not get an acceptance on instant decision day can get advice on how to make their application better.  It’s like personal counseling for free!

Ms. Ross’s article continues:

“It’s a very, very personal way of going through the admissions process,” says John Iacovelli, dean of enrollment management at Stockton University in New Jersey, which holds about three dozen instant decision events at high schools each year.  (quoted from the article)

Stockton University, by the way, is a public university in southern New Jersey, opened in 1971, which enrolls over 9,000 undergraduate and graduate students, about 1,500 of whom are first-time freshmen.  After six months, 88 percent of its graduates are employed or enrolled in graduate school.  Both this 88 percent and Millersville’s 95 percent strike me as very good statistics for any university, but perhaps especially so for a public university.

3.  What About Transfer Students?

In case you have a kid already in college and looking to transfer, it might be worth noting that some colleges have these instant decision days for transfer students, too.  Ms. Ross offers this information in her article:

Some university admissions officers travel to community colleges to offer this opportunity to prospective transfer students.

The University of Arizona offers about a dozen such events each year, says Kasey Urquidez, vice president enrollment management and student affairs advancement, and dean of undergraduate admissions at the university.

Virginia Tech…hosts instant decision days at four nearby community colleges, says Jane Todd, the school’s associate director for transfer initiatives…

Prospective transfer students should register in advance, submit their application and obtain a copy of their transcript before meeting with the admissions officer, both Todd and Urquidez say. Students who have attended multiple colleges will need a transcript from each, says Urquidez, and collecting all of these documents can take time.  (quoted from the article)

Well, the University of Arizona and Virginia Tech!  These are gigantic public universities that are well respected in their states (and nationally, too) and very likely by the nearby community college students who could take advantage of these instant decision days.  Given our nation’s scandalously low rates of community college students transferring to four-year institutions to continue their educations, these instant decision days have to be a step–or a giant leap–in the right direction.

4.  So What?

So, what should you do with this information?  Well, if I were you, I would start looking for colleges that offer the instant decision events, either on their campus or at your kid’s high school.  Ask the guidance counselor about any such events at the high school.  If there aren’t any scheduled, suggest that the guidance counselor look into this option, perhaps especially from nearby public two-year and four-year colleges.

In my search for information, I ran across a posting on the website for Saratoga Springs High School, located in the beautiful upstate town of Saratoga Springs, New York.  The notice explained that eight colleges would be conducting “instant decision” and “instant admit” sessions at the high school between October 30 and December 15.  The colleges were both public and private, both two-year and four-year, and both large and small, including one major campus of the State University of New York system.  That’s not a bad deal for those seniors, especially those who did not have their hearts set on highly selective colleges or those who needed or wanted to attend a nearby public institution.

What’s the bottom line?  It is that it never hurts to have a little stress relieved by these instant decision days.  There are few things in education that have no downside, as we have said in the past.  One of those things we have talked about often is student internships during high school.  Another of those things is Early College high schools and other college-credit-in-high-school programs.  Another of those things is Early Action admission plans.  There is just no downside to any one of these things. And now we will add instant decision days.  Just no downside.  So, do a little research in your own community and happy hunting!

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…

Episode 153: Outstanding New Documentary on HBCUs

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

It is officially March, and I feel that we have done all we can for the Class of 2022.  Before we head into advice for the Class of 2023, we are going to do a few episodes on things we didn’t know about certain colleges–or about higher education generally.  As we have always said, we learn something every time we do an episode, even though this is our business and we have been doing it a very long time.

Today’s episode focuses on a favorite topic of ours here at USACollegeChat–that is, our nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  We have spotlighted HBCUs in several of our episodes over the years (Episodes 32, 90, 100, and 117), and we mentioned them on many of our episodes that took you on our virtual nationwide tour of colleges quite some time ago.  And while we will give you some background and some statistics in this episode, for those of you who are not familiar with HBCUs, the real purpose of the episode today is to praise the new documentary on HBCUs that recently aired on PBS’s Independent Lens series.  The documentary, entitled Tell Them We Are Rising, is the work of filmmakers Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams.  And it is fantastic!

As our regular listeners know, there are just over 100 HBCUs in the U.S.  About half are public, and half are private.  HBCUs are large and small (many are very small), faith-based and not, two-year and four-year colleges and universities; some also have graduate and professional schools, including the well-known Howard University School of Law, which is the focus of one segment of the new documentary.

HBCUs were originally founded to serve black students who had been excluded from other higher education institutions because of their race.  The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War.  Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves.  Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.  A list of their famous graduates would be too long to read to you.

1.  Why Watch?

So, why should your kids (and you) watch this documentary?  (If you can’t still find it on the air on PBS or streaming on the PBS website, buy it or tell your high school to buy it and show it to all of the students.)  There are a lot of reasons to watch.  First, it is a great piece of documentary filmmaking.  It includes take-your-breath-away and heartbreaking archival photographs and film of black American life during segregation and during the end of segregation.  It includes archival photographs and film of HBCU students on campus going back a hundred years, including the horrifying 1972 shooting of two students in an otherwise peaceful protest on the campus of Southern University (in Baton Rouge, Louisiana); more about that later.  It includes insightful interviews with former HBCU students now in their 70s and 80s, with HBCU presidents, with historians, and more.  It includes evocative and relevant music.

Second, the film gives an impressively organized overview of 150 years of African-American history, focusing on higher education in the form of HBCUs, but including everything from the beginning of elementary education for black children to the debate about the education philosophies of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois to the role of the remarkable Thurgood Marshall (who graduated from both Lincoln University and Howard University School of Law, two HBCUs) in ending school segregation to the lunch counter sit-in protests staged by HBCU college students during the struggle for civil rights.  If your kid does not know this history (and many don’t), here is a powerful way to help him or her learn it.

Third, if your kid does not know what an HBCU is, it is time your kid learned.  That is especially true if your family is African American–or Hispanic, because Hispanic enrollment at HBCUs has been increasing (as we have said in earlier episodes).  And while white students can and do also enroll at HBCUs, white students should also have an understanding of these historic institutions and their continuing important role in our nation’s social and cultural fabric.  We have heard too many anecdotes (including in this documentary) of black high school students who want to go to an HBCU only to have their friends ask them why in the world they would want to do that.  Early in the film, HBCUs are described as an “unapologetic black space.”  Late in the film, they are described as the place where “you’ll find something you won’t find anywhere else.”  That’s why.  No one could have said it better.

2.  Some Background

If you all thought that you were going to get away without hearing one more time about my favorite HBCU, Fisk University, you were wrong.  Oddly enough, in a PBS interview by Craig Phillips with the filmmakers, Mr. Williams said that they had written a segment, which they did not end up using, about the Fisk University Jubilee Singers.  The Jubilee Singers, organized in 1871, saved the University from closing in its early days by raising money on their concert tours, and they continue to tour today.  I love their story.  And, of course, there is Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the intellectual architect of the Harlem Renaissance, who served as Fisk’s first black president, and the Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, like Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, and Aaron Douglas, whom he brought to Fisk to work with him.  Well, Mr. Williams, I would love to have seen your segment on the Jubilee Singers, though I was interested in the segment you do have on Fisk.  And you all should be, too.

As we just said, today HBCUs enroll students who are not black–just as historically white colleges and universities (referred to as predominantly white institutions, or PWIs) now enroll students who are not white.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, students who were not black made up 22 percent of the enrollment at HBCUs.  That was up from 15 percent back in 1976.  And while the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent in those years?which was good for them?total college enrollment rose by 81 percent in those same years.

Some observers say that it has become harder for HBCUs to recruit African-American students now that they have been welcome at both selective and nonselective colleges across the U.S.  That is undoubedly true to some degree.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong sense of community among the alumni/alumnae of HBCUs and a strong sense of tradition on HBCU campuses.  You can see that in the new documentary, for sure.  And there have been very recent and impressive spikes in HBCU applications, as we said back in Episode 100.  For some African-American students, the sense of community at HBCUs could be a good fit for what they are looking for in a college, and a shared culture could go a long way toward helping them feel comfortable on a college campus, especially if it is far from home.  Some observers say that Hispanic students often feel more comfortable in the family-like environment of many HBCUs, which could account, in part, for the increase in Hispanic enrollment.

And, parents, in case you are interested, lower-than-average tuition rates at both public and private HBCUs (sometimes literally half of the going rate at PWIs) are one more attractive feature.  Just go check out a few.  I think you will be surprised.

So, if you and your kid are tempted to investigate further after watching Tell Them We Are Rising, here are some HBCUs to consider (some you will probably know, and some you might not know):

And there are plenty more.

3.  What We Didn’t Know

So, let me return for a moment to the shooting at Southern University, which I am embarrassed to say I knew nothing about.  I would like to think that is because I myself was just a college student in those days, but that is really no excuse.  Here is an excellent synopsis of what happened, as told last month by reporter Mike Scott, of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, on the occasion of the documentary’s airing on PBS:

Forty-five years after two Southern University students were shot dead by police who had been sent in [to] quash weeks of demonstrations on the school’s Baton Rouge campus–which included occupation of the university president’s office–the 1972 incident is once more getting attention.

The documentary Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will make its broadcast premiere Monday night (Feb. 19) on PBS–and online a day later?.  In addition to starting with a drum cadence by the Southern University drum corps, the 85-minute film features a 10-minute segment on the Southern [University] shootings, which are brought to life through interviews, photos and video–and which vividly, and poignantly, illustrate the on-campus tumult at HBCUs in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“They were exercising their constitutional rights. And they get killed for it. They die,” former student Michael Cato says in the film of the slain students. “Nobody sent their child to school to die. It shouldn’t have happened.”

The Southern shootings took place Nov. 16, 1972, after weeks of demonstrations by students protesting inadequate services. When the students marched on University President Leon Netterville’s office, Gov. Edwin Edwards sent 300 police officers in to break up the demonstrations.

It was during the subsequent confrontation that a still-unidentified officer fired a shotgun at students in violation of orders. When the smoke cleared, two 20-year-old students–Leonard Brown and Denver Smith–were dead.

No one was ever charged in their deaths. Edwards, who is interviewed in Tell Them We Are Rising, blamed the students, saying their actions were a “trigger” for the police response.

In 2017, the Southern University System board’s academic affairs committee voted to award Brown and Smith posthumous degrees.  (quoted from the article)

The documentary shows the actual shots being fired and the bodies of the two students being taken away.  It includes a touching interview with the sister of one of those students.  It tells a story that all of us should know.

4.  Final Thoughts

In an interview for PBS with the filmmakers, writer Craig Phillips asked why they had wanted to make a film about HBCUs.  Here are their answers:

Stanley Nelson: In fundamental ways, historically Black colleges and universities form the core of the African American community. They are the engine that has driven the ascent from enslavement to the highest positions in business, government, education, science, technology and entertainment. The sacrifices made to create these institutions are significant, and are what compelled me to capture this essential chapter of American History.

Marco Williams: HBCUs are the engines of American democracy. These institutions, in the education of African Americans activate what it means to be American. I was invested in telling this story because I am committed to highlighting the fact that African American history is American history.

People often ask about is there a need for HBCUs? I always answer: why don’t we ask is there a need for PWIs (predominantly white institutions)? This answer, coupled with the viewing of the film, provides the most salient understanding of the significance and the value of these essential institutions to the creation of America.  (quoted from the article)

Mr. Nelson goes on to say this:

My goal is to highlight the indisputable importance of these institutions within Black communities and invite Americans to consider how different our country might look without the existence of these institutions. I also hope this film prompts viewers to not only celebrate the legacy of HBCUs, but also reinvest in them.  (quoted from the article)

I think that the film will absolutely do that.  I think it is hard to watch it and not want to go to an HBCU.  Remember, parents, that HBCUs come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are well known, and others are not.  But their history as a group and as individual institutions is remarkable, as Tell Them We Are Rising teaches all of us.

Find our books on Amazon!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…