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Sports And HBCU Student Recruiting: A Necessary Evil?

September 11, 2007

“Big Game The Lure As Black Colleges Seek Top Students”

This was the headline of a Chicago Tribune story from a few days ago.

What impression does it convey? My reaction — primarily negative — rests on the choice of a single word, an article to grammarians: the “the” before lure. That one word made it seem, to me at least, that The Big Draw for talented students at black colleges is athletics. This puzzled me. It felt like a stereotype, racist in the extreme, about academics not mattering to the black community.

If this was not meant — and I don’t strictly believe that it was, then the headline is at least perpetuating a notion, already common in higher education, that athletics are a prime mover in college choices. For who? For what demographic? Has this been proven in a study?

But what of the body of the article, the story in general? It was about the fact that fifteen historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) used a football game as a recruiting event. The HBCUs set up tables at Chicago’s Soldier Field while the game was in session and opened themselves up for questions. Marketers might have called the event a classic bait and switch: Football was ~a~ lure in fishing for students. The game (Southern University-Baton Rouge beat Mississippi Valley State University, 23-6) served as a means for holding a college fair.

Here are some excerpts from the piece (authored by Jodi S. Cohen and Monique Garcia) — interspersed with my comments:

– On the game/recruiting event: “‘It’s better than just going online,’ said Ashley Mahon, 16, a junior at Dunbar. ‘You get to ask questions and find out what you need to do.’ “

TL: This is a sentiment that needs to be widely understood by higher education leaders: while the internet is a nice outlet, it’s not a draw. To pull people in, recruiters need to be a physical presence.

– “The college fair was a first for the Chicago Football Classic, where students could sit in on seminars on topics such as submitting applications and obtaining financial aid.”
– “Jaye Williams, who helped organize the fair, said mailings were sent to 5,000 Chicago public school students. High school principals and counselors promoted the fair during the last week, she said. About 1,200 students were expected to attend.”
– ” ‘All of this is about exposing students to historically black colleges,’ said Chicago Board of Education President Rufus Williams, a graduate of Southern University. ‘It will inspire them to things that they may not otherwise have thought about.’ ”

TL: Such as the fact that HBCUs are also about sports? Now I’m not criticizing President Williams exclusively on this: I hate it that high schoolers across the nation, in general, are being fooled by college sports fun. Is sports the really the only answer to declining enrollments at any school? Wouldn’t it be more productive to tout one’s educational achievements, by past and present students? Should it at least be a combination?

– “The [Chicago HBCU] college fair comes when black colleges and universities are increasingly competing not only with one another but with predominantly white colleges for top minority students.”

TL: These activities are outlined constantly by Margaret Soltan at her University Diaries weblog.

– “There are 89 four-year black colleges and universities in the country, but their share of African-American students has been slipping. The percentage of black students enrolled in black colleges fell to 12.9 percent in 2001, from 18.4 percent in 1976, according to the U.S. Department of Education.”

TL: This is absolutely alarming: a 1/3 drop in enrollment money across the board in the last 30 years. Wow.

– “Unlike the annual Bayou Classic, which pits Grambling State University against Southern University, the Chicago Football Classic’s rivals change every year. ‘[Students] don’t have to go to visit a historically black college to experience it. We bring it to Chicago,’ said Larry Huggins, co-chairman of the Chicago Football Classic.”

TL: But what exactly are they experiencing? And what is the purpose of the experience?

– “The football games also raise money for the colleges. The nonprofit Chicago Football Classic rakes in $900,000 a year through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and other fees, Huggins said. Chicago offered a discount to rent Soldier Field for the day.”

TL: Who can denigrate the fundraising in light of the sentence above about drops in enrollment (and funding, consequently)?


But still, what is being sold at the game? If academics constituted the crux of the message at each of the fifteen tables, shouldn’t some sense of that academic history be conveyed in the article? – TL


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