My HBCU and Your Black Student Union Are Not the Same

For generations, it’s been widely accepted that the only place Black people could have a Black college experience was at one of our beloved HBCUs. Though, in recent years the term “HBCU Experience” has been frivolously thrown around to define HBCUs and PWI Black Student Unions alike. This blurring of the lines of the two can lead to a misrepresentation of what Black students truly receive when they attend an HBCU; or an overrepresentation of what a PWI Black Student Union (BSU) can truly offer students.

This is in no way meant to diminish the cultural identity of any Black students attending predominantly White institutions; but to add context to why an HBCU experience cannot exist on a White campus. The differences are far too distinct and vast.

A BSU is a student organization that is part of a larger campus community like any other community service or social organization in predominantly white space. An HBCU is a mission-driven institution predominantly comprised of Black students, faculty, staff, and administration. The campus community at an HBCU is the only true full HBCU Experience because it encompasses every facet of what an institution truly means.

Many Black PWI students face significant amounts of institutional racism during their undergraduate experience from students and faculty alike. In 2012, Towson University grappled with attention following the creation of a White Student Union for White Nationalists; the same university which HBCU Digest Founding Editor Jarrett Carter featured in a piece attempting to lend support to TU’s black students searching for an HBCU experience on campus.

HBCUs aren’t a monolith and never have been in any sense of the word. These institutions have been pillars of learning, employment, and economic growth for the Black community and abroad. While it’s easy to fall into the shiny traps of only speaking of HBCU in the silos of social life on campus like most TV segments and movies on HBCUs promote, these representations fail to mention the hundreds of jobs created in the communities around the campuses, the opportunity for Black academics to conduct funded research and lead departments, and the infrastructure the school itself helps lay, in many cases, to underfunded and under-resourced Black communities.

In many cases, especially on social media, otherwise normal instances of black fellowship (i.e. Swag Surfing or the latest dance challenge) are used as shallow examples of an HBCU experience, outside of an HBCU campus.

These type of statements and subsequent debates usually minimize the experience at HBCUs to simply social events, Greek organizations, and social activism. But this is where many Black students — at PWIs, HBCUs and everywhere in between — miss the mark and must be corrected.

The Black experience is wherever a Black person is, but it doesn’t compare to the experience created and maintained by the existence of HBCUs.

Even a school like Georgia State University that is 41% Black cannot compare to an HBCU because much of the predominantly Black metrics end with the students. According to College Factual, over 61% of faculty at the school aren’t Black. The school does serve more Black students than any individual HBCU; but it’s not mission-driven in the Black community nor does it anchor its work in Black communities.

Even a school with the student population of Black students even as large as Georgia State can’t compare to an HBCU.

Many PWIs are beginning to brand themselves as diverse and inclusive to attract Black students; and use BSUs as a comparable option to what an HBCU offers. But how can a once a week meeting of Black students compare to the all-encompassing nature of the HBCU experience? It can’t.

It is important for HBCUs to continue to deliver and grow on their unique experience, that is now – more than ever – becoming the envy of campuses across the country.

We must also remember to never minimize our campuses to solely social spaces; they are incubators of innovation and economic forces in our community. The Black students that attend our beloved institutions get a unique experience that is unrivaled; and will never be replicated at any PWI—no matter what event any BSU sponsors.

If the only Black experience on (insert PWI) campus is a party: then it’s a guaranteed fact that it’ll never compare to an HBCU experience.