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May 10 2016
by Manna Zelealem

Here's Why I'm Over the PWI vs HBCU Debate

By Manna Zelealem - May 10 2016

For the past few years, it has seemed like the PWI vs. HBCU debate has been a huge topic in black spaces. In high school, seniors are faced with the daunting decision of where to spend the next four years of their life. For black seniors, another decision they have to make is whether to attend a PWI or an HBCU. For some, an HBCU is the obvious pick while for others, a PWI is more their speed. However, some HBCU students have issues with black students attending PWIs and some PWI students look down on HBCUs, which causes a sort of divide in the black community.

A PWI is a predominantly white institution, such as the University of Georgia, and a large majority of universities in the country. An HBCU, like Howard University, is a historically black college or university. According to the United Negro College Fund, "Congress defined an HBCU as an institution whose principal mission was and is the education of black Americans." In the past, HBCUs were vital because black students were often denied admission to white colleges. However, in a day and age where a student legally cannot be denied for their race, some wonder why students still decide to attend HBCUs. 

With high school graduation so close I can practically feel the diploma in my hands, I definitely understand how stressful senior year can be. And like every other black student, I had to decide between applying to/attending an HBCU or a PWI. My father is a professor within the Atlanta University Center (AUC) so I have grown up used to the idea that I might attend an HBCU. For those who don't know, the AUC is a consortium of historically black colleges in Atlanta, Georgia, comprised of Spelman College, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine, and Clark Atlanta University. 

I decided to attend a PWI. And before anyone jumps to conclusions about my decision, let me explain why I chose the school that I did. First and foremost, I have the highest regard for HBCUs. I think historically black colleges are training grounds for some of our most influential black leaders and beautiful pieces of history that deserve to be preserved. I respect these schools and everything they stand for, but I also believe selecting a college is an extremely personal process. It's a decision I had to make for myself, not to make anyone else happy. Ultimately, I am the one who will be on that campus for the next four years working toward my degree – not my parents, not my friends, and not someone on Twitter who disagrees with my choices. 

To put it simply, my decision to attend a PWI was not made because I look down on HBCUs. It was not made because I think HBCUs are "unprofessional" or "unorganized" or "won't get me a job after graduation." (To be clear, I don't believe any of those things.) As I previously stated, selecting a college is a personal process. What works for one person may not work for everyone. After long discussions with my family, I chose to attend Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California this coming fall. I committed to this school not because of misconceptions regarding HBCUs but because of the opportunities this school will afford me. 

Since the seventh grade, I dreamed of attending college in Los Angeles. It seemed like an unattainable dream until second semester of senior year, when everything finally came together. I received practically a full-tuition scholarship and a seat in the University Honors Program, two blessings I couldn't pass up. The location of the school is the definition of perfection (palm trees and the most beautiful view of Los Angeles – from the beach to downtown to the Hollywood sign) and I have met so many wonderful people, both incoming freshmen and current students.

Recently, I came across a tweet that said all black students who attend PWIs are white supremacists, people who believe that the white race is superior to all other races. I found the tweet to be absolutely ridiculous – how does my college choice make me, a person who is just as black as the person who tweeted that, a white supremacist? 

During my college selection process, a countless amount of people encouraged me to visit the colleges I was considering. Visiting a prospective school is a great way to see how you feel about the school outside of virtual tours and student testimonies. What if a black student visits the colleges on their list and feels more comfortable at a PWI? Should they overlook their comfort and what they want just to prove their blackness by choosing an HBCU? Am I a white supremacist just because I'm going to the school I've dreamed of? No. Never. Absolutely not.

I understand the necessity of historically black colleges. I understand why students prefer an environment in which they can be unapologetically black and unashamedly themselves over an environment that may try to quiet their blackness. I have friends going to HBCUs and I have friends going to PWIs – I see the appeal in both schools. What I don't agree with or understand is why students feel the need to shame others over their college choice.

For years, black Americans fought for their right to education. Now, when there are a plethora of options for college, what does it matter to you which school I choose? The fact of the matter is that black men and women have access to the education their ancestors fought so hard for. 

After setting foot on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, I instantly knew it was the school for me. My question is, why should I deny myself my dream school to prove my blackness to someone else? My blackness is not (and can never be) validated or invalidated by the school I decide to attend. This argument just creates a divide in the black community, and it is a divide that should not exist. Regardless of the number of black faces at a particular university, our brothers and sisters are getting educated. We should be celebrating that, rather than tearing down one another based on what type of school we choose to attend.

Lead Image Credit: Lionsgate

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Manna Zelealem - Loyola Marymount University

An Atlanta native, Manna is studying in Los Angeles as a member of the Loyola Marymount University class of 2020. She loves writing, natural hair, '90s TV shows, black girl magic, and her Ethiopian culture. You can follow her Instagram & Twitter at @mannazel and her blog at!

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