No matter who you are or where you live, navigating the college admissions process can be stressful and overwhelming.
Most high school seniors are just trying to enjoy homecoming and football games on top of their other after school responsibilities — they may have a part-time job or help take care of younger siblings after school. But no matter what’s going on, teachers, family members, and parents ask the same questions: Which schools are you applying to? Is that school a safe environment for Black kids? When are you getting your college applications finished?
Helping Black families navigate the process is why Shereem Herndon-Brown, the chief education officer and founder of Strategic Admissions Advice, and Timothy Fields, senior associate dean of undergraduate admission at Emory University, wrote “The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions,” published in September.
Both have worked in college admissions at both Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Predominantly White Institutions, so they’ve been able to “see both sides of the fence.”
“We have information in our heads that we need to share with people: Black families, Black students, white counselors who are working with Black students, and people who care,” Herndon-Brown says.
The duo’s expertise is certainly needed. As we still try to determine trends the pandemic had on college enrollment, one is being made more clear: there is a continued dramatic decline in enrollment from Black, first-generation, and low-income students, according to a National Student Clearinghouse report published in May.
While Asian and Latinx freshmen numbers grew across the country in spring 2022, the number of Black freshmen declined by 6.5%, or 2,600 students, the report found. This means that, since spring 2020, there is a decline of 19%, or 8,400 fewer Black freshmen in higher education.
And early decision deadlines are coming up on November 1 for schools taking the Common App, with regular decision applications due in early 2023.
That means getting college application resources and support to Black high school students and their families is a top priority.
“All we want to do is get this message out to people who care about the next generation of Black students. We want to make sure that they understand the choices along the way, ” Herndon-Brown says.
To understand the message and the choices, Word In Black asked them more about the book and what Black high school students and families should be thinking and doing to ensure a smooth transition to higher education.
Word In Black: What inspired you to write this book? And how long was it in the making?
Shereem Herndon-Brown: We started in the summer of 2020. Tim and I had known each other for about 10 years. We have both written and self-published our own books about totally different things. But we also have this admissions background — I work primarily on the application side, helping families to navigate the college admissions process of multiple applicants together, and Tim has a senior associate dean role at Emory, so he does the admission side.
But in summer 2020, during what we’ll call the racial reckoning of America — George Floyd, the birdwatcher situation in Central Park — there was a movement in which many students around the country were voicing the micro and macro aggressions against them that were happening at their schools.
I immediately called Tim and I said we need to write a book about Black families in college. We need to make sure that Black families understand that they have choices, and Black students have a resource that can help them to apply to the right college for the right reasons. And Tim having gone to an HBCU of Morehouse College, and me having gone to Wesleyan University, a predominately white institution, we felt like we had a dynamic that could serve our population.
WIB: What can readers expect to get from this book?
Timothy Fields: The biggest thing readers can expect is an introduction to many aspects of the college admission process. We divided the book up into three primary parts.
The first part is where we established the place in time we are at in this country with a renaissance of HBCUs. What is going on as far as Black families as they think about this process? Where are they placing their children to go to school? What are the choices that they have? And then also thinking about the college admission process, what questions they should be asking early on. The context sets the foundation.
The second part we move on to X-factors. And that is really looking at what are some of the pieces of the puzzle that have changed since many of the families applied, thinking about financial aid, if your child is an athlete or artist, or has some special talent, having a conversation about liberal arts, and job preparation. I took the lead on that, reading applications, what things stood out, how students and families can position themselves, and what they should be thinking in the process.
And the final part is the process. When should you apply? What should you put in your application and essays? We talked about this current test-optional world. What does that mean? What are some of the things you should be looking for on campus?
And then we wanted to provide a resource guide. So there’s several colleges or universities throughout — both HBCUs and PWIs. We have a listing of over 80 prominent Black college graduates and where they went to school so that people have reference points. As we think about what success looks like in this process, we wanted to put names and institutions along with that so people can really see themselves at all these various institutions.
WIB: There really is so much in this book, so many different facets and angles that you’re looking at this process from. And you’re both perfectly in the position to create this guide. So how were you figuring out what was the best information to include?
Herndon-Brown: We did a lot of focus groups. We met with parents, we had several roundtable discussions, and we met with school counselors. We wanted to make sure we weren’t doing this in a vacuum. We know what we’re doing, but we don’t know everything. We really want to spark, as the book suggests, a conversation about education, parenting, and race. Getting questions and concerns from people that we know and people that we don’t know, taking surveys, and we noticed that a lot of people were, for lack of a better term, oblivious to how the process works.
There’s a really great chapter about how the decisions you make now affect your choices later. We wanted to make sure we incorporated that into the book because these are real conversations people are having, and we wanted a book to really encourage more dialogue in order to give people the resource that they need and show them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel because so much of it can seem overwhelming. We’re all going through it, so maybe if we discuss it more, we can all go through it together and be successful.
Fields: As we were writing it, there were some foundational things that we wanted to cover. We wanted to discuss HBCUs versus PWI. What are the merits of those? We have no preference, obviously, it’s what’s best for the family. We wanted to talk about the process: When should the process start, what should be included in it, what things should be highlighted. But we recognize that we couldn’t cover everything. So throughout the writing process, we said these are the things that we want to begin the conversation with. And then we’ll continue it in second, third editions, through webinars, and other places to fill in the gaps.
But we wanted to use this as a resource to start the conversation. And it’s not only for Black families, but also for allies, college counselors, those who are supporting Black students in the process who want to have more insight or gain more knowledge on how to best support these students and families.
WIB: Why was this an important resource to create?
Fields: One, there is no resource. If you look at the academic canon and look at books out there, there are a lot of books about college admission, but none of them really speak to the Black experience, especially here in this space and time. The other part of it is there’s an interesting dynamic that Black families have that other races/ethnicities don’t have at that same level, and it’s how do we navigate both HBCUs and PWIs?
We generally, in our conversations with families and counselors, found that there are three general camps. There’s families who went to HBCUs, they feel strongly that their children should go to HBCUs, they only want their money to go to HBCUs. Then there’s another camp that went to PWIs and feel that they are better representative of diversity in the world, have more resources, better prepare students for life after college, and only consider PWIs. And then the largest camp is that of Black parents and families that are going to consider both.
WIB: What are some of the questions that you answer in this book?
Herndon-Brown: That’s a great question. A timeline because, while it sounds as simple as what you should do and when, we often feel like Black families are not approaching the process with a sense of urgency. So we were very clear that we should be doing this at a certain age. If you’re in high school, start doing this now.
The other question that we answered is that people talk about financial aid and scholarships, and how do I do this? And am I going to qualify for aid? Or should I apply? And the answer is, it all depends.
We believe that the four pillars of a college search process really depend on cost, location, major, and career. So the answer to that question of how do I get scholarships? How do I get financial aid? It depends. What schools are you applying to? Should you fill out the FAFSA? Does the school offer merit aid? Is your kid gonna qualify for outside scholarships? These are all things that are internal and personal to a family. That can’t be a sweeping generalization. And we say that at the same time as offering resources that can help.
Fields: To add on to that, there are a lot of books that answer the question how do I apply to college. What we wanted to do was build upon the who, what, what, when, where, and why.
The section we have at the end is our opinion. Shereem offers ‘is college for everybody?’ That’s a question that’s very important. I offer that this should be a personalized process within the walls of the home that you should think about. What are the needs of the student? What are the resources available for the family?
Ultimately, the biggest question that we don’t answer but we want families to think about is redefining what success looks like. Is success getting into college? Finishing in four years? Getting a scholarship? Is it finishing debt free? Is it getting into an Ivy League school? Is it going on to the legacy school and being a fourth generation of your family to go to that HBCU? What success looks like should be defined in the home. And that’s something that we really want families to think about early on in the process.
WIB: What do you hope readers take away from this?
Herndon-Brown: We want families to understand that they have multiple choices in this process. We want educators to understand that their Black children need a resource in order to speak specifically to their needs. What people need to get from this book is that we are dynamic, we are different, and our diversity really defines so much of who we are in our determination to succeed. In order for that all to happen, we need to know that there’s a plethora of options out there. We need families and educators and allies and students to know that we should not be narrowing our thinking and that we need to approach the process with a sense of urgency.
We wrote this book with so many different touch points to make sure that people understand that education is the foundation for wealth building, education is the foundation for introspection. And in order to achieve that, you must make the right decisions as early as you can. We all learn at different paces. But in order to really maximize your life, you need to take stock in yourself, and your family has to take stock in you so that your life can be the best that it can be. And that is the real goal of the book: to stimulate a conversation about education, parenting, and race.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.