Posted on August 13, 2009

Howard or Harvard?

Eric Easter, EbonyJet, August 12, 2009

In this “Age of Obama,” when the world is seemingly wide open to the next generation and the troubling dynamics of race are easing (if not changing), a number of people who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in more difficult times are asking themselves an interesting question: “If I had to go to college today, would I have made the same choice?”

And after seeing Ivy League graduates dominate the worlds of finance and politics for the last two decades, some are concluding that while the HBCU experience was rich and powerful, they themselves might have been more rich and powerful had they attended those same Ivy League universities.


There was a time when the Howard versus Harvard, HBCU versus Ivy League question was a discussion mostly about social ambition and prestige. As Lawrence Otis Graham described in his book on the Black upper class, Our Kind of People, high-falutin’ Black social networks once made attendance at one of the top-rated HBCUs or Ivy League universities the dividing line between acceptance and ostracism.

Beyond the superficiality of social order, there is the very real issue of perception. Is there any doubt that at least some of the broad cross-cultural acceptance afforded presidential candidate Barack Obama was a result of his Harvard and Columbia bona fides? Would the monied liberal set have made the same assumptions about his intellect if he had attended, say, the University of Phoenix or had an online law degree?

But at root, the argument is only partly about education. Some see the most powerful asset of either educational choice being the post-graduate networks that can assist you in the life you live after those four short years. Again, a look at the Obama administration is telling. It is a veritable boys and girls club of Ivy League graduates–Columbia, Yale, Harvard and Brown–with a network built of relationships, assumed excellence and common experience.

HBCUs have their own powerful career clubs. What Yale and Harvard are to law, Howard and Meharry Medical College are to medicine. If you’re in business, Florida A&M and Morehouse pedigrees ease the path. Entering media or the music business, again, Howard grads are ever-present. If you’re a woman in any major field of endeavor, fellow Spelman grads are an unparalleled global network. That only scratches the surface.

As for education (oh, that), the best HBCUs rival the best majority schools, and often attract skilled educators who bring with them missions to educate people of color along with formidable skills in their fields. Still, one argument against HBCUs lingers, especially in this more open racial society: the impression that a monochromatic experience is limiting within the context of a new global culture. More crudely put, the perception that HBCU graduates are so deeply ensconced in Black culture that they will be ill-equipped to effectively navigate a White-run world.

Many graduates of HBCUs believe the opposite to be true. They have found that being a part of an African-American intellectual elite and competing based on your abilities alone is, in fact, both liberating and empowering and creates a confidence that makes it actually easier to move around in the majority world.

By contrast, some Black students at Ivy League colleges have discovered isolation and the perception that their academic opportunities are unearned, leaving them even more insecure about race. {snip}