The Two Tales of Higher Education
A visit to North Carolina becomes a lesson in Higher Education Inequality
A week ago, I visited the first Historically Black College or University for women in the United States, Bennett College. The college itself is landmark, a beautiful representation of Black women, and a hallmark of Greensboro.
The women who attend and teach at the college are known as the Bennett Belles — epitomizing grace and intellect with every step they take. The campus is laid out intentionally with residential halls facing the academic buildings so that, as the tour guide informed me, “the young women of Bennett remain focused on what matters.”
At the tip of the campus is a brick chapel, which once hosted the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., facing gates that women can walk through only twice in their time at Bennett — when they first become Belles and when those Belles finally leave the ball (also known as graduation). The gates are parallel to the president’s home, which serves as the campus’ North Star.
As I sat, perched, at the bench in front of the chapel, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy mainly due to the fact that Black women had a place they could call home — a space in which they could and should delve into all their interests without remorse. I imagine that I would have felt this way had I gone to Spelman, another Historically Black College for Black women situated in Atlanta.
After speaking with the Black women who attended Bennett, my heart was full. Before me were tens of young women, from different walks of life, passionate about making the world a better place — and they had the added bonus of having each other to lean on.
That same day, I travelled to another higher education institution, Elon University, which was about 30 minutes out. I drove with a professor who also had not yet visited the university, and when we turned into campus, our jaws immediately dropped.
Flanked to our left was a beautiful brick building simply titled “The Inn” and ahead of us was a huge fountain surrounded by the greenest grass you could possibly imagine. (I later found out that Elon is known for being one of the most picturesque campuses in the country, and it surely lived up to its name.) The school was simply breathtaking.
Though my time at Elon was edifying and exciting (I taught my first class there based on my edited collection!), I could not help but think about the Bennett Belles, their campus, and how some years back the college was in the news for potentially losing accreditation. I could not help but think about how Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom discussed Bennett College in her piece about student debt for the New York Times. Or, how at present nearly all full-time first-time Bennett College students receive financial aid.
In comparison, a quick look at Elon University’s demographics suggests that the majority of college-age students are white, rich, and from the Northeast. Lots of students who attended the private school I graduated from landed at Elon. Though a fair amount of Elon’s students still need financial aid (~36 percent of first year students needed aid this past year), there is no shortage of resources. The differences in facilities, for example, between the two schools are stark. At most public universities and HBCUs, separate colleges or departments may share floors or even a building. At Elon, and lots of private PWIs, colleges and/or departments have their own campus or building.
To me, these two colleges, thirty minutes apart, represented two completely different institutional realities, which differ along the lines of race, gender, and class in higher education.
Bennett College is more than equipped to educate students, but the noticeable lack of investment in HBCUs, like Bennett, that serve purposes beyond educating Black students, is egregious at best.
What’s more Elon isn’t unique in its proximity to whiteness and wealth (and the legacy thereof) in the higher education sphere. My dad used to say that predominantly white institutions are where the resources were concentrated. And he’s right.
In 2016, the United Negro College Fund found that Howard University, the HBCU with the largest endowment of $600 million, has a significantly lower endowment than the 10th place non-HBCU university, University of Michigan at $9.5 billion. Billions to millions. Comparing Elon and Bennett, Elon’s current endowment is 335 million as of 2021 while Bennett’s is $15 million. The differences are stark. Yet, the outsized cultural and economic impact of HBCUs are unparalleled.
At the crux, the [type of] access to higher education is an excellent representation of how inequality still shapes the spaces that generate opportunity. And how when we talk about who faces challenges in higher education, and who ends up makes decisions for students overall, there is a gap.
The two tales of higher education boils down to this: The Bennett Belles are as capable as anyone I met at Elon University, but because of their race, gender identity, and for many, class, they will not be easily granted the space to lead in the way Elon students will be expected to, they will not receive every resource they are entitled to.
Even amidst challenges faced, Bennett College students are thriving in every area, being selected for high ranking graduate programs, interning at Fortune 500 companies, and the list continues. What would happen if these women were granted the resources to go above and beyond what they’ve already achieved?
Artwork Credit: Bennett Belles by Synthia Saint James
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