Bringing Back the Brown Paper Bag Test to HBCUs

Historically black colleges and universities have been experts at distancing themselves from painful elements of their cultural past. One of those elements – the brown paper bag admissions test.

Propagated as urban legend but a real practice for some of our most reputable HBCU campuses, light complexion was once an admission qualification for college enrollment, and fraternity and sorority membership. The best candidates were as light as or lighter than the hue of a brown paper bag, ruler or other inanimate object brought to life with the task of adjudicating ethnic acceptance.

Black folks today still suffer great growing pains to free ourselves of complexion-based valuation, but we’ve grown enough to cast it out from admissions standards at the HBCU. The thought of denying black people admission to a black college because of skin color seems beyond forgivable; a direct arrow through the heart of the HBCU mission and cultural legend.

But is it more forgivable for HBCUs to knowingly admit underprepared students without discernible interest in higher education? A look at admission practices for many of today’s HBCUs reveals a woeful abuse of and honor for the black college mission and vision, an uneven exchange of student debt and continuing family hardship for tuition revenues and enrollment numbers.

Paper bags were once a reprehensible screening process of HBCU talent, the beneficiaries of which became the Black American diplomats and barrier breakers in segregated industries and social structures. Now criminal records, poor writing skills and abhorrent test scores lead a new and equally reprehensible culture degrading the HBCU experience and degree.

Safety, attrition, school spirit, financing, alumni giving and community outreach all begin with enrollment management, and no investment in retention, student affairs, academic rigor or athletics can remedy a student or throng of students whose lack of college readiness is only exceeded by a lack of personal maturity or underdeveloped ethics. HBCUs are impacted by a minute percentage of students who, because their demonstrated lack of college potential or readiness wasn’t properly screened, can cause great institutional detriment when they drop out, drink or drug out, or are taken away by the aid of an arresting officer.

As with most sensitive topics in the HBCU landscape, the discussion begins with resources. Many HBCUs don’t have the personnel or technology to adequately screen and review the thousands of applications they receive every year. But what these admissions offices do have is a mission statement, alumni chapters and a charge to bring the best students they can find to an institution. Is it better to invest time and money into recruiting a class of 400-500 students that want the HBCU experience and are personally committed to completion, than 1000-1200 students of which a little more than half are going to finish in more than five years anyway?

The solution doesn’t require an elaborate system of interviewing, one-on-one recruiting or database management. It simply requires recruitment officers to be more selective about high school visits and relationship building with guidance counselors, partnership with alumni associations to cultivate qualifying legacy admits, and intense outreach to the annual handful of local students who show exemplary academic promise beginning in the 8th grade.

We once held a brown paper bag up to students to determine their opportunities. How about now holding them up to higher standards of potential and merit?

Bragging about a record-breaking entering class of freshman in the fall and reporting a graduation rate of 35 percent or lower in the spring is sideways hustling, and robs black communities of time and money that could be dedicated to better preparatory instruction through partnerships between HBCUs and two-year institutions. For too long, HBCUs have hidden high attrition and low-graduation rates behind the problem of affordability. Once upon a time, that was a great move to build the resources that would eventually allow for stronger remediation and social rehabilitation on the black college campus.

Those days have passed by quickly, and if black colleges do not reassess how critical recruitment and admissions are to HBCU capacity and culture, good students will avoid these campuses in larger numbers to avoid increased crime, low performance and empowered stereotypes about the HBCU.

And they’ll wind up at colleges and universities which consciously or otherwise, will judge and ostracize them based on their complexions. No paper bag necessary.

Categories Commentary


  • The author identifies issues that impact learning, student engagement, and the day-to-day operations of many HBCUs. It is reprehensible to admit students whose applications and recommendations suggest they are not ready to attend college. Some of the current practices contribute to enormous debt that often affect entire families who co-sign loans.

  • Wow….did you really have to invoke the paper bag test? That was by NO means a glorious period for HBCUs. It distracts and detracts from what might be an otherwise legitimate message.

  • This is a problem that many colleges are facing, not just HBCUs. One of the best ways to determine an applicant’s readiness for higher education is through the instituting an essay portion for all applications, in which the potential student would explain why they want to choose a certain major and what impact it will have on their lives and the community five or ten years down the road.

    Many colleges today have eschewed the applicant essay. But see the following what the essay can accomplish. Per a January, 16, 2013 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

    Boston College Sees a Sharp Drop in Applications After Adding an Essay

    By Eric Hoover

    Boston College saw a 26-percent decrease in applications this year, a drop officials largely attribute to a new essay requirement.

    Last year the private Jesuit institution received a record 34,051 applications for 2,250 spots in its freshman class. This year approximately 25,000 students applied, and all of them had to do one thing their predecessors did not: write a supplemental essay, of up to 400 words, in response to one of four prompts.

    Although some enrollment officials have nightmares about big one-year declines, John L. Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions at Boston College, described the numbers as good news. After all, he said, the quality of this year’s applicants—as measured by their ACT and SAT scores—did not go down, compared with last year. “Probably what we’ve done is right-size our applicant pool,” he said.

    In an era when many colleges are asking applicants to do less, some institutions have asked them to do more, purposely thinning the ranks of prospective students. If nothing else, Boston College’s move reveals the slipperiness of application tallies, widely viewed as a meaningful metric. If the addition of one short essay can drain a quarter of a college’s pool in one year, how much did those numbers say in the first place?

  • The writer raises a very good point about admissions but the challenge is much more complicated. I have worked at five universities including three HBCUs. I have seen a student barely get out of high school but finish at the very top of his college accounting program at Jackson State (now a CPA, MBA) and another similar person now has a graduate degree from Howard. I have any number of students enter with top SAT scores and high school grades drop or flunk out at all five universities. It is very difficult to predict how college will affect individual students. Some find their way; others lose their way. Many kids of color are still first generation in their families to attend college. Now, it is also the mission of HBCUs to give underprivileged young people a chance to be successful and deciding on the cut-off point for admission is not always clear. However, I do agree that there are some young people who have a clear track record of trouble making that probably should never be admitted. College admissions decisions are often quite complicated.

  • Wow! Finally the Truth is being told. I know it is tough for HBCU’s to become more selective about who they admit due to economic constraints but it must be done. This article is excellent!

  • Let the church say, “Amen!” Beautifully written and truthfully told. As an HBCU grad, I can attest to what you’ve communicated.


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