GREENSBORO, N.C. — Year after year, the Aggies keep growing.
The latest growth, of 6 percent since 2019, is all the more notable because it occurred during the coronavirus pandemic as many colleges and universities around the country were struggling to recruit and retain students.
Federal, state and institutional data analyzed by The Washington Post show that several prominent historically Black universities held steady or grew during the public health crisis. Here is a snapshot of preliminary total enrollment, counting graduate and undergraduate students, for fall 2021 compared with fall 2019 for selected historically Black universities.
Fall 2021 head count
Change since 2019
North Carolina A&T State U.
Up 6 percent
Howard U. (D.C.)
Up 28 percent
Prairie View A&M U. (Texas)
Up 5 percent
Florida A&M U.
Down 7 percent
Morgan State U. (Md.)
Up 9 percent
Tennessee State U.
North Carolina Central U.
Down 1 percent
Texas Southern U.
Down 17 percent
Southern U. and A&M College (La.)
Up 4 percent
Jackson State U. (Miss.)
Up 1 percent
Fayetteville State U. (N.C.)
Up 3 percent
Albany State U. (Ga.)
Up 3 percent
Bowie State U. (Md.)
Up 2 percent
Alabama A&M U.
Down 3 percent
Norfolk State U. (Va.)
Down 3 percent
Winston-Salem State U. (N.C.)
Up 2 percent
Virginia State University
Down 2 percent
Clark Atlanta U. (Ga.)
Up 3 percent
(Some enrollment figures may change as institutions finalize what they will send to the federal government’s education data center. Fall 2021 data was not yet available for many schools, so this chart may be updated.)
The unprecedented social, educational and economic upheaval since March 2020 has wreaked havoc on enrollment at many schools. Florida A&M University attributes its enrollment dip to the pandemic, admission testing rules in Florida and state funding formulas that focus on retention and graduation rates. University officials foresee a rebound in their head count. They say applications were up this year 30 percent. “We’re hoping and we’re pushing to try to increase enrollment this year,” William Hudson, Florida A&M’s vice president for student affairs, told The Post. He said the university will also focus on recruiting transfer and graduate students “as we continue to support our stellar academic programs.”
Here in Greensboro, enrollment is a point of pride for the school formally known as North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. But not the only one.
It was founded in the 1890s along with a cluster of other public universities to serve Black students who were shut out of state flagship schools and many other places of higher education in the segregated South. Among its alumni are the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, civil rights leader; Michael Regan, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Biden administration; and Ronald E. McNair, one of the astronauts who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster.
The university has powerful connections to the 20th-century civil rights movement.
On Feb. 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T freshmen walked to a downtown F.W. Woolworth’s store and sought to be served at a Whites-only lunch counter. Their sit-in led to further demonstrations, striking a formidable blow against Jim Crow. A monument to the “A&T Four” — Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond — stands on campus, and four student residence halls are named for them.
This month, North Carolina A&T was abuzz over a report in Forbes magazine on chronic underfunding of the school and other public HBCUs since the late 1980s in comparison to the resources state governments provide predominantly White land-grant universities. North Carolina A&T, Forbes found, had a massive funding gap relative to North Carolina State University.
North Carolina A&T Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr. told The Post he is pushing state officials and the business community for more resources, “unapologetically demanding the best for our university.”
The university has drawn notice for its work with disadvantaged students. More than 60 percent of entering freshmen have enough financial need to qualify for federal Pell grants. Engineering and business fields are among the most popular majors. About 80 percent of full-time freshmen stay for a second year, federal data shows, and 52 percent graduate within six years. Martin said the university has made significant progress on those benchmarks and wants to improve further.
Many factors affect graduation rates, but as a general rule, universities that serve high numbers of Pell grant recipients tend to have much lower graduation rates than those that don’t. Faculty members here say they are mindful that they are role models and mentors for many students who might be among the first in their families to go to college.
Arwin D. Smallwood, chair of the history and political science department, grew up in a rural area of eastern North Carolina and was himself a first-generation college student — “a poor country boy,” as he put it, and blind in his right eye. He graduated from another historically Black school, North Carolina Central University, and earned his doctorate from Ohio State University. He taught at the University of Memphis and Bradley University in Illinois before joining the North Carolina A&T faculty in 2013.
“So I understand the importance of an HBCU and the purpose and impact that it can have on students,” Smallwood said. “That’s one of my reasons for being here is that for me, it’s the opportunity to come back home to the state of North Carolina. It was an opportunity to have an immediate impact on the African American community. This is something I believe in.”
Most of the university’s students, by design, are from North Carolina. But applications from elsewhere have surged in recent years. Of 27,000 first-year applicants for the next fall term, 72 percent are from out of state. State higher education officials have eased in-state enrollment rules to encourage growth at North Carolina A&T and four other HBCUs in the state — North Carolina Central, Winston-Salem State, Fayetteville State and Elizabeth City State.
Martin told The Post he expects enrollment at North Carolina A&T to surpass 14,000 soon. The university, he said, could set a new target of 15,000 as it seeks to deepen its graduate education and expand research capacity. “We are on a very competitive trajectory,” he said.
Jelani M. Favors, a history professor, graduated from North Carolina A&T in 1997. He said it was an emotional homecoming for him last year to return to its classrooms as a professor determined to help new generations find their purpose. Favors wrote a 2019 book, “Shelter in a Time of Storm,” on the history and role of HBCUs in America.
“It’s important for us to remember our roots as a seedbed of activism,” he said, “as a space which is continuing to be unapologetically Black and at the same time welcoming of any other culture and other races. As HBCUs always have.”