HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have been around since the 1800s, but lately, they've gotten a fresh wind.
More top scholars and athletes are choosing HBCUs with no doubt in their minds, despite having numerous options for college.
"I feel safe. I feel seen. I feel heard," Reagan Hagewood, a biology student at Prairie View A&M University, said.
Students like Hagewood are flocking to HBCUs across the country.
"Applications are up across our campus for undergraduate, our graduate programs," Brian Armstrong, the vice president of student enrollment success at Texas Southern University, said.
This is partly due to pop culture.
When Queen Bee, Beyoncé, put HBCUs on the big stage at Coachella in 2018, then turned the experience into a Netflix concert film, people watched and listened. Texas Southern University in Houston saw an increase in fall applications this year by 15% and spring semester applications by 9%.
"Events like Beyoncé's homecoming really put a new light on all the things that are involved with an HBCU education. But highlighting the aspect of the culture," Armstrong continued.
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There's an unspoken pride in HBCUs that's rooted in not only culture but legacy and strength. In 1837, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania became the first HBCU founded, and it is still in operation today.
Back then, and for many years after, that was the only way the enslaved, freedmen, women, and Black Americans could get a higher education.
"Historically Black colleges were born out of this very unpleasant history in this country where it was once illegal to educate Black Americans and formally enslaved people," Dr. Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs at Virginia Union University, said.
At its height, there were 136 HBCUs. Today, there are 101 accredited HBCUs spanning 19 states and territories, educating about 300,000 of America's 21 million college students.
When HBCUs thrive, America thrives. According to the United Negro College Fund, currently, 25% of Black graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs. They're the doctors, dentists, and veterinarians many of us see here in southeast Texas.
"We don't know students by numbers. We know students by name," Dianne Jemison-Pollard, a retired dean of the Honors College at TSU, said.
Jemison Pollard says the biggest misconception about HBCUs is that students are getting a subpar education, but the fight for equality continues.
"The education is equal. Your professors are outstanding because we had to take the same tests everybody else had to take," Pollard added.
Senior political science major and TSU's student government association president Dexter Maryland attests to that. He believes choosing an HBCU over predominately white universities, opened major doors, including a fully paid fellowship when he graduates, and a job with the State Department.
"I know if I went anywhere else, I probably wouldn't have those. I would go to an HBCU 10 times over again," he said with a smile.
Ryan Linton at Prairie View A&M University in Waller County feels the same way. He turned down a number of schools, including Cornell University in the Ivy League, to take his computer science dreams to PV.
"What really sold me on Prairie View is the fact that they're among the top producers of Black engineers," he explained.
For other students, post-George Floyd and amidst a renewed call for social action and change, an HBCU is where they felt the most comfortable.
"The sense of family and peace and community that I have here is something that I hope all people of color can experience. Especially being a woman in science, I feel like the opportunities are far and few in between, but at Prairie View, I don't feel that way," Hagewood said.
You don't have to look far to find a notable HBCU alum. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Spike Lee, Chadwick Boseman, Vice-President Kamala Harris, and even my own mom, graduated from Fisk University in Nashville back in the 70s. It's a legacy that today's HBCU college students carry on.
"I wanted to come to an environment in which I could be among people that look like me and will want to see me thrive in this environment," Linton said.
In order for HBCUs to stay around for generations to come, it's going to take more than social popularity. Strayhorn says it's going to take decision-makers and donors getting involved.
"We need lobbying. We need policies. We need more federal funding, we need funding to institutions. Lots of HBCUs are not just strapped for cash, but a lot of their operating budget goes to trying to make sure that they're dealing with, you know, aging facilities and the upkeep of the landscape, making sure students have adequate funding for their tuition and fees," Strayhorn said.
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