Ishmale Powell Shows Us Why ‘HBCU vs. PWI’ Is Not Always About Choice

Ishmale Powell is a 15-year-old high school graduate whose story has gone viral—not just because of his scholastic achievement and age — but because he has to crowdsource for his post-secondary education despite having a 4.5 grade point average, 1130 SAT score, and 22 ACT score.

Something is wrong with that.

Many people extended their congratulations and donated what they could to his education. Some of us did not. We all had questions that needed answers. We found those answers.

Before these contextual answers are divulged, we have to dedicate some space to those who turned Ishmale’s story into a warped version of the “HBCU vs. PWI” debate. A previous article attracted some gross assumptions about him, and the prospect of HBCUs working to attract and enroll the best and the brightest. Even some HBCU alumni showed how internalized inferiority exists in within our own community.

For those who tried to shame the Digest for advocating for the HBCU choice against the broader idea of college choice, we have to first analyze the context of how he, and millions of other students like him, arrives at any choice. When circumstances are less than ideal, when support systems for low-income, first-generation students of color are generally lacking when counselors and advisers do not present all available options and the benefits of the same, what kind of choice can really be made?

Assuming that every student has every avenue to examine every type of college option is little more than internalized PWI privilege— it is outright ignorant.

Of the schools to which he applied, none offered Ishmale Powell a full scholarship. None offered a partial or a quarter scholarship. Of the schools which he seriously considered—the University of North Carolina – Charlotte and North Carolina A&T State University, there is but one institution that is representative of majority institutions and systems which receive more financial, legislative and cultural support and is not afraid to use it in the effort to secure more black students. And then there is the other institution that is representative of minority-serving institutions that are allocated fewer funds and contracts but disproportionately educate students like Ishmale Powell.

In this “choice” that our students have to make between HBCUs and PWIs, there is much more than a simple choice being made. For every person, there are cultural, financial, professional and personal benefits and consequences in choosing one over the other.

But this story is not about Ishmale’s or anyone else’s choice; it is about how well-positioned HBCUs are to be considered as an option. That positioning requires money to market, to build programs, to hire distinguished faculty, to build comfortable living spaces, and to help fund students’ educations. We all know the challenge facing black colleges on the subject of resource cultivation, and the solution to that challenge is what makes this story so ironic.

Ishmale, one of thousands of beautiful black minds all around this country and this world, could have easily slipped under the radar of black colleges not because he is undeserving or because he was unaware. Ishmale was the one who almost got away because HBCUs do not have the enrollment and the tuition revenue stream to be more than a blip on his radar.

UNCC has approximately 29,000 students (23,914 undergraduates) with an undergraduate cost of attendance (in-state) of $22,083; while NCAT has approximately 11,177 students (9,688 undergraduates) with an undergraduate cost of attendance (in-state) of $17,303. If every student has to somehow satisfy his or her bill, the annual tuition revenue for UNCC is $528,092,862; the annual tuition revenue for NCAT is $167,285,404–and this is excluding figures from graduate student cost of attendance.

For every one dollar that North Carolina A&T has to run a school, to recruit students and to grow, UNCC has five dollars—that is independent of state appropriations, grants and contracts, everything. North Carolina’s flagship HBCU starts out four dollars behind a mid-level PWI, just from the difference in student enrollment alone.

That is why the “HBCU vs. PWI” debate exists, why some black folks believe the narrative of inferiority even if they are not bold enough to label it as such, and why the Digest takes a position of advocacy in connecting Ishmale with our schools; because something and somebody has to counter uninformed tweets from individuals and imbalanced funding for institutions at the same damn time.

That is how Ishmale and his father, Shawn, wound up in the news for trying to finance a brilliant mind through basic means. They completed the FAFSA in October; they completed college applications in November (through the use of fee waivers) and during North Carolina’s free college application week period.

Shawn Powell supports himself and Ishmale, amazingly, on $859 a month because that is all that his disability affords him.

So many other students have come forward sharing that they, too, struggle to fund their education even with numbers similar to Ishmale’s. Our students, regardless of their choice between PWI or HBCU, have great need. HBCUs are extraordinary places, but expecting them to handle the economic disparities of students from low-income homes, bad narratives promoted by self-loathing, unaware black people under the guise of “access,” “choice,” and “why does it matter,” all while trying to graduate those students who do choose HBCU can make it through is dangerous thinking, wishing, and demanding.

Ishmale deserved better than what systems and circumstances provided for him. HBCUs like Elizabeth City State, Central State, Benedict, Virginia State, and Morehouse are trying to stand in the gap with short notice and sizable scholarship offers. T hat is what HBCUs do.

So imagine if they only had more students bringing more resources to do even more of it?