Welcome to Race on Campus. Applying to colleges can be stressful and expensive, especially if a student is applying to multiple institutions and has to keep track of and pay for each individual application. To alleviate that stress and get more students of color to college, Robert Mason created the Common Black College Application. For $20 students can apply to all 61 member HBCUs, and specify their top four choices. Katie Mangan has more.

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A Perfect Storm

Every Friday while Robert Mason was enrolled at Virginia State University, his grandmother would mail him a $10 money order to support the first member of her family to attend college. It wasn’t easy, since she probably earned less than $100 a week working as a maid and had to catch three buses to send off the money.

Mason, who graduated in 1984, becomes emotional when he talks about how transformational attending a historically Black college was for a student raised by a single mother in a public housing project in Roanoke, Va.

In 1990, after working in admissions at Virginia State and at Clark Atlanta University, Mason founded the Common Black College Application. His portal allows students to apply to all of the network’s 61 member HBCUs, and specify their top four choices, for one $20 fee. The app has a few twists from the better-known Common Application, which students can use to apply to up to 20 of the more than 900 participating colleges. That portal is free to use, but students must pay application fees to colleges that require them.

One of his goals for a targeted app that’s cheaper to use was “to create opportunities for students of color who, like myself, are walking through the halls of schools without any real concept of who they are and what they can accomplish,” Mason says.

This year, as many colleges were struggling to attract students amid the Covid-19 pandemic, applications through the Common Black College Application jumped 33 percent, to 24,000.

“We had our banner year during this terrible year, but it was almost like a perfect storm,” Mason says. Kamala Harris, a Howard University graduate, became vice president, and the Black Lives Matter movement intensified during a year of protests over racial injustice and police brutality.

Record-setting gifts to HBCUs shined a spotlight on the sector, while President Biden’s American Rescue Plan provided nearly $3 billion in federal funds to HBCUs and other minority-serving colleges. That allowed them to offer more-generous scholarships and to upgrade their infrastructures, says Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Eye-Popping Numbers

At a time when Covid-19 was hitting minority communities hardest, students and their parents were seeking a college where they’d feel safe and supported, and applications began pouring into the Black-college portal.

Nikeycia C. Hadley filled out the Common Black College App on October 1 and received her first acceptance and scholarship offer two days later. “Then they started rolling in,” the Memphis resident says.

From her Common Black application alone, she says, she received 26 acceptances and 15 scholarships which, if added together, would total more than $900,000. She chose Miles College, in Alabama, for its full-ride scholarship, relative proximity to home, and strong music program.

Social-media pages for the Common Black application have highlighted several other students with dozens of acceptances and seemingly millions of dollars’ worth of scholarship offers. The numbers are eye-popping and have gotten the attention of would-be applicants, but need to be kept in perspective. If 10 colleges each offered a student a presidential scholarship, the combined offers could total more than $1 million over four years. Of course, nowhere near that kind of money was on the table for any individual student, who would have to choose one.

Mason also created a Facebook page for students and their parents to communicate directly with college admissions counselors.

In a normal year, Reynolda Brown and his admissions team at Claflin University, in South Carolina, are busy with school visits and recruiting fairs. “This year, the Common Black College App was a godsend, because everything was virtual, and attendance was nil,” says Brown, interim vice president for enrollment management. After full days of online lessons, “students were Zoomed out.”

One first-generation student who’s entering Claflin this fall on a full ride after filling out the Common Black application had planned to attend a community college because she thought it was all she could afford, Brown says. With her 3.76 GPA and 1280 SAT score, “she and her parents didn’t know she was sitting on the winning lottery ticket and that people would pay for her to go to college.”

When diving into a pool of 24,000 applications, Brown says, “you have to be strategic — otherwise, you’ll be chasing bad lead after bad lead.” His team pulled out roughly 4,000 students from South Carolina and bordering states, who had high grade-point averages and who had chosen Claflin as one of their top four picks. Last year, the college only culled 386 applications from the Common Black app.

Finding the Right Environment

Mason highlights his own story to show students that those who’ve gotten off to a rough start academically can excel in the right college environment. “I graduated from high school with less than a 1.9 GPA and a 700 SAT,” Mason says, describing himself as a standout athlete who was more interested in sports, girls, and drinking with his friends when he entered college. “I was extremely narcissistic, and I thought the whole world revolved around me.”

Virginia State’s generous admissions policy at the time gave him a chance to attend a supportive HBCU where his adviser, the first Black man he’d seen in a suit outside of church, with a baritone voice and a commanding presence, became a role model.

“There are hundreds of thousands of kids around the world who don’t think of themselves as being smart enough to go to college,” says Mason. If he can do it, he tells students, they can too. —Katie Mangan

Read Up.

  • A University of Michigan at Ann Arbor panel recommended that the institution remove Fielding H. Yost’s name from the arena. Yost was athletics director and head football coach at the institution for decades. During that time, he benched a Black football player when the Georgia Institute of Technology refused to play if a Black player was on the field. (The Detroit News)
  • It’s been one year since George Floyd was murdered. His death was followed by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and since then many Black students have had to have many conversations about racism and police brutality. During this difficult year for Black students, HBCUs have provided a haven. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Across the country, some conservative state lawmakers want to pass laws to ban colleges from teaching critical race theory. In Texas, one bill for elementary and secondary education proposes to limit how instructors can teach how racism influenced the legal system and the state’s history of slavery and anti-Mexican discrimination. (The New York Times)
  • Meet The Linda Lindas, a punk band from Los Angeles. The group went viral last week, when the Los Angeles Public Library shared a video of the young girls’ song “Racist, Sexist Boy.” A band member said that she wrote the song after she experienced anti-Asian racism. (NPR)

—Fernanda