photo slideshow by Lindsay Wasserberger
The fourth floor of the old school building that houses the Oakland Unified School District was buzzing on Thursday afternoon. The room was lined with tables covered in glossy view books and fliers. The tables each sported a brightly colored tablecloth emblazoned with a college name and crest. Smiling recruiters shook hands and explained details:
“We have one of the best broadcast programs in the country,” declared one recruiter.
“The average SAT score for reading and math is 1070,” said another. “Now, that’s slightly above the national average, but that’s the average. You can still get in if you’re below that.”
Teenagers nodded their heads, some looking a bit overwhelmed and others quickly firing back another question.
“What’s the setting like, in the city or the country?” quizzed Andrea Beasley, 17, of San Francisco, at a table proclaiming itself in bold blue and white letters for Lincoln University. Lincoln was started in 1866 by the surviving members of the 62nd and 65th Colored Infantries. The campus is located in Missouri’s state capital of Jefferson City, population 40,000. (Answer: To a kid from San Francisco or Oakland, the country.)
Though the same kind of event is being replicated across the country this fall, one thing distinguished this particular college fair: almost every student, every recruiter, and every parent in the room was African American. That’s because the fair, though hosted by the Oakland public schools, was organized by the California nonprofit U-CAN, which for the last decade has been bringing representatives of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities to meet California students. This is their first year holding a fair in Oakland, and founder Alan Rowe says it is “a match made in heaven.”
Marjorie Morgan, 17, waited patiently in line to speak with admissions counselor Natasha Ellis of Atlanta’s all-female Spelman College. Marjorie has streaked red dye into her jet black hair, and was wearing a royal blue scarf draped around her shoulders. An African American senior at MetWest High School in Oakland, Marjorie is a tall girl with a serious face, but her smile came easily as she talked about her plans to attend college. “I’m the youngest,” she said, “but I’ll be the first one in my family to go to college for a four-year degree.”
In many ways, Marjorie is just the type of student Oakland public schools spokesman Troy Flint said the district hoped would attend the event. She is self-motivated and comes from a family in which attending a four-year college is not the norm. “Many kids in our district come from social backgrounds that provide no exposure to the idea of going to college,” said Flint. “This event is a way to introduce students, especially our African American students, to colleges, and to make college tangible to them.”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, known as HBCUs, were first designated as a specific group in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order which established a federal program, “… to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges and universities to provide quality education.” Every president since has signed an order relating to the expansion or administration of the program, and there are now 105 HBCUs, mostly in the Southeast.
Many HBCUs were started in the years immediately following the Civil War, and, like Spelman, which is currently 68th in the U.S. News and World Report college rankings, many boast famous alumni and nationally competitive rankings. Howard University, in Washington, DC , claims Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court judge, as an alumnus.
Other HBCUs, however, have traditionally kept their admissions standards on the lower end, with a minimum high school GPA requirement of a 2.5 (C+), in order to serve students who were not able to reach their full potential in high school.
“There will always be that certain segment of the population that needs that extra help and attention [available at a HBCU],” said Gilbert Wright, an admissions counselor at Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, N.C.
This idea was echoed at the table for Bennett College for Women, a small private college in Greensboro, N.C. “We are interested in a student’s promise as well as her prowess,” said recruiter Tanya Monroe. “Our focus is educating women in the African diaspora to celebrate diversity, be global thinkers, and 21st century leaders. The range of who we find are successful at Bennett might include some women who would have been overwhelmed at a larger school.”
Oakland High School English teacher Cole Filipek was at the fair to case some of the colleges for his students. “I teach seniors,” he said, “and I just wanted to see what these schools were like. They all seem like really great schools, but they’ll take some students that the UCs won’t.”
Filipek was initially worried about how his “minority students,” the term he used for his non-African American minority students, might fare at these schools. “The schools are all telling me that they are blind to race on their applications,” he said, “and I believe them.” Still, Filipek thinks he might have a guess as to why “so few [non-African American] minority kids apply to these schools. It’s because they don’t want to be the minority. It’s the same reason they won’t apply to UC Davis, where it’s mostly white. No one wants to be the minority.”
These days, few HBCUs have a 100 percent African American student body, though many are still at over 95 percent. All the recruiters interviewed cited their schools’ desire for more diversity. At the same time, recruiters said, there is still a clear place for HBCUs in the world of higher education.
Marjorie, who grew up in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood and went to middle and high schools where the majority of students were Latino, said she was interested in an HBCU for a couple of reasons. “I want to get out of California,” she said, “either to go to the South or to New York. And I am interested in going to an HBC because I will be with people who I know I will be able to relate to.”
Marjorie said she that she’s known she wanted to attend college since she was a middle school student. She even chose her high school, MetWest, at the urging of her middle school principal, because she thought it would better prepare her for college than other high schools in the district. MetWest features a curriculum that weaves itself around two-day-a-week internships for its students, and Marjorie hopes that her impressive list of internships, in conjunction with her 3.17 GPA, will make her a solid candidate at a number of schools.
Unfortunately, Marjorie is not representative of African American students in the Oakland school district. According to the district’s website, only 22 percent of African American students who graduated in 2007 had taken enough UC/CSU required courses to be eligible for admission in the state system. Though new measures were put in place this summer to change that by making enrollment in the initial college-track classes mandatory for all ninth graders starting in 2011, inequalities still exist, as was demonstrated by the district’s API scores, which were released on Tuesday.
The disparity is one reason Flint saw the HBCU fair as so important. “African American students make up 36% of Oakland’s students,” Flint said. “We are not going to reach our goals as a city without our African American students achieving at high levels. We’ve made strides towards closing the achievement gap, but we’re not nearly where we need to be.”
Nevertheless, Flint said he has high hopes for the future. “[The new Superintendent] Tony Smith is really driven to make a difference in terms of African American and Latino achievement,” said Flint, who is African American himself. “Smith is a warrior around this concept.”
Marjorie did not mention the achievement gap when she spoke of her college plans. She talked about her family. She held her applications and neatly printed resumes close to her chest, but she stood straight and looked her questioner right in the eye. “My family believes in me,” she said. “They say, ‘You’ll be the one to go.’ It’s up to me to prove them right.”
Photos by Lindsay Wasserberger and Lillian R. Mongeau