Hundreds of Baltimore County high school seniors will pack into Milford Mill Academy’s gymnasium Wednesday to meet with representatives of more than a dozen historically black colleges and universities. After about an hour of discussing their transcripts, test scores and career goals, organizers say many of the students will walk out with an acceptance letter.
The instant admissions college fair will bring together 15 regional HBCUs, 20 Baltimore County high schools and about 800 students. The goal is to close the enrollment gap in the number of minorities seeking a higher education, said Ken Berlett Jr., Milford Mill’s counseling department chair and organizer of the event.
“We’re hoping to have a couple hundred kids leave with college acceptances and put a dent in the gap of minority kids going on to four-year colleges,” Berlett said.
Berlett said the students he serves often face barriers during the college application process. Many don’t know how to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the college application process, such as paying steep application fees, and may be the first in their families to be going to college.
“Our kids steer away because they don’t know what to do in terms of pursuing education at the next level,” he said. “Our goal is to eliminate the application process and the application fees.”
Wednesday’s event is free for all students, and transportation will be provided by their schools. Students will bring their high school transcripts, SAT scores and optional writing samples and recommendation letters.
They will have the opportunity to meet with representatives from two colleges, each for a 30-minute interval. Should their materials fulfill the college’s requirements — typically, a minimum GPA and a certain standardized test score — the students will come away knowing they have the option to attend a four-year college. The fair is targeting students of color although students of all races were invited, Berlett said.
About 39 percent of Baltimore County public school students are black, about 9 percent are Hispanic and about 7 percent are Asian, according to the district. Forty percent are white.
“The kids can’t wait,” Berlett said. “For us, the biggest achievement gap has been in the pursuit of higher education outside our doors.”
All four of Maryland’s HBCUs — Morgan State University, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — will be in attendance, Berlett said. There will also be representatives from schools in Washington, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. The majority of schools will be offering instant admissions, though for some, these preliminary decisions must be followed up with an online application to make it official.
Enrollment at HBCUs across the country are growing, albeit at a slower rate than predominantly white institutions. The number of students enrolled at HBCUs nationally rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period, total enrollment in all degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent.
Morgan State’s new freshman class is about 1,200 students, its largest in seven years. At Bowie State, enrollment has increased by more than 10 percent since 2013, and it also welcomed a record-size freshman class this fall. UMES and Coppin State have seen a slight spikes in enrollment, too.
HBCUs largely serve students who come from low-income backgrounds. About 40 percent of freshmen at four-year HBCUs receive Pell Grants, federally funded financial aid, according to a recent report by The Education Trust, a national advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement among students of color and low-income students. When compared to other schools with similar student bodies, Ed Trust found HBCUs have better graduation rates for black students than non-HBCUs — about 38 percent versus 32 percent.
Berlett said that while Milford Mill welcomes all kinds of colleges for student recruitment visits and fairs — private colleges, state institutions, community colleges and more — it was important to have this fair focused on HBCUs. The majority of students at his school are African American.
“It’s not that we’re pushing students toward what’s familiar, it’s just something for our students to find success, they need an environment where they’ve found success before,” he said.
With the state of race relations in this country, more students of color are looking for “an atmosphere where they feel more safe, more understanding,” said Aaries Reed, Morgan State’s assistant director of undergraduate admission and recruitment. “Students are finding comfort in HBCUs.”
Though it may seem novel, the concept of offering instant admission during a college fair has been around for years, school officials said. Eliminating application barriers for potential students could serve to bolster campus populations and open doors of opportunity to more students, said college administrators.
“When we can have them leave with that instant gratification, they absolutely love it,” Reed said. “The counselors love it, the students love it and it helps the seniors stay motivated, knowing they have a great school that absolutely wants them.”
On Wednesday afternoon, high school juniors will also attend the college fair and talk with representatives about their future college plans and academic prospects.
“It’s really giving students the opportunity to learn more about HBCUs,” said Germel Clarke, Bowie State’s admissions director. “We want to give students in that area more access to us.”
Maryland’s four historically black institutions have been engaged in a legal battle with the state for the past decade. Attorneys representing a coalition of the HBCUs say Maryland fostered segregation by allowing well-funded core academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at historically black schools.
The coalition has proposed transferring some academic programs now offered at traditionally white universities to historically black institutions as a way for them to attract a larger and more racially diverse student body. The state argues this plan is destructive, and has pitched spending millions of dollars instead on marketing, multicultural centers, and scholarships aimed at increasing diversity.
A U.S. district court judge is still considering next steps in a case that could dramatically alter higher education in this state.
“We’re being patient,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which is behind the lawsuit. “We are on standby.”