Black-ish Explores the Decision Between Attending an HBCU or a PWI That So Many of Us Had to Make

Black-ish “Black Math” episode
Black-ish “Black Math” episode
Screenshot: ABC


Last night’s episode of Black-ish hit home. Junior’s waiting on college acceptance letters, and he gets two at the same time: an acceptance and full ride to Howard University (father Dre’s alma mater) and an acceptance—but not as much money—to Stanford University.


For Dre, the decision is simple: Howard. For Rainbow (Junior’s mother), it’s also simple: Stanford. Dre views Howard as an opportunity for Junior to experience his blackness for the first time at a fine institution (and for free), and Rainbow thinks they’ve been preparing their kids to go to places like Stanford, a superior school to Howard (in her mind). Junior agrees.

To convince Junior to go to Howard, Dre takes him to Washington, D.C., to tour the school and show him the Howard University he loves. It seems to backfire with tremendous aplomb. Or so we think. Junior sees a school where blackness is celebrated in various fashions, and that’s alluring to him. He sees a place where he can go and be any version of black and be proud of it. I realize it’s a television show, but that made me happy, AND I think it was the right decision. You can always go to Stanford for grad school, but undergrad at an HBCU like Howard? Siiiiign me up.

I’ve told this story before, but I ended up at Morehouse College almost by accident. When applying for colleges after high school, I pretty much applied to schools that sent me information and ones I’d heard of. In truth, the only schools I seriously considered were the University of Michigan (I’d been enamored with the school since I was young and lived on State Street in Ann Arbor, Mich.) and Howard University. I was accepted to Michigan and received a scholarship, and Howard never so much as sent me the information I requested. Tyrone must have been working in the admissions office back then, too. Too soon?

Anyway, because of my scholastic record and test scores, I received scholarships to most schools I applied to (FAMU even offered me a full ride through graduate school), so I wasn’t stressed about college. I was going somewhere. I never even visited any schools I applied to. I only ever set foot on Morehouse College’s campus AFTER being accepted. My tour wasn’t even real; my sister and I just rolled down the street from the family house in Atlanta and walked around the campus. I will do better with my own children, I promise.

I applied to Morehouse because one of my best friends in life told me he got a scholarship there and I should go there, too, so we could be roommates. Cool. I was going to need a roommate. I applied, got a scholarship, got accepted into a summer program for STEM majors, and the rest is rock and roll history.

Now, back then, despite wanting to go to Michigan, I didn’t realize that by deciding to go to Morehouse, I was making the best and probably most significant decision of my life. But since graduating, I absolutely feel that way.


While I suppose I don’t really know what I missed, I can’t imagine that my college experience could have been any better than it was at an HBCU, Morehouse in particular. While life lessons and lasting friendships are probably common to most college experiences, the celebration of and validation of blackness is something I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten at Michigan—a fine school, no doubt, but totally different.

I walked out of Morehouse more confident in who I was than I ever had been, with an unshakable pride and belief in myself and the awesomeness that comes along with blackness. I’m glad I chose Morehouse over any “better” school, even the ones that are ranked higher and deemed better by black and nonblack people alike.


That is a commonality shared among my friends. All of us were exemplary students and accepted at various top-tier schools and chose Morehouse or Spelman for whatever reasons fit at the time. And I think we’re all better for it, especially after the fact.

In the episode, as a way of sharing how maybe an HBCU isn’t the best option, Rainbow points out to Dre that he struggled “readjusting” to the regular world. They use the most REACHIEST of reaches by having Dre’s white co-workers mock him for not knowing an Elvis Costello song. I don’t know any Elvis Costello songs off the top of my head. Or I don’t know they’re BY Elvis Costello. That’s too white. Listen, had they thrown in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” maybe.


Dre is from Compton, Calif., so it’s possible, and maybe likely, that he wouldn’t have listened to some of the most popular songs in white America. But I don’t know how many of us feel like we need to be up on white folks’ music to get by in the workplace anyway.

I worked at a white-ass place for years, and when I played my music, sometimes it was Johnny Cash and sometimes it was 50 Cent. My boss once walked in while “Many Men” was playing. It was awkward for us both. But I kept listening once she walked out.


And they showed Dre becoming physically aggressive with a potential employer who got Howard fucked up in the game. And while I’m sure there are plenty of white employers who have no idea where Howard is, I SERIOUSLY doubt any of its graduates are leaping across tables at the slight. One thing we learn at HBCUs? Don’t let the white man fuck up your money; you take their money until you can use it to generate your own.

I know plenty of folks who went to PWIs, and I’m happy they enjoyed their college experiences just like I enjoyed mine, but the mission of HBCUs is uniquely centered on instilling a sense of pride and esteem in their students, which is just as important as the degrees we obtained. Junior figured that out on his trip to Howard, well before I did in my own life.


Thank God he got a full ride, though—that financial aid might be tricky next year.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.



I’ve never cared for the HBCU vs PWI arguments, but always choose what is best for you. When I was looking at schools all I cared about was getting my degree so I can have a career and better life than the one I grew up in. I never once thought about or yearned for the “college experience”. I was more concerned with which school made more financial sense and if it offered the program I wanted.