August 11, 2022


The Ultimate Guide to HBCUs: Profiles, Stats, and Insights for All 101 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. By Braque Talley, Ph.D., and the staff of The Princeton Review. Princeton Review/Penguin Random House. $14.99.

     The unending debate between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome continues, well, unendingly. On one side are arguments that the proverbial playing field must be set up, and rearranged if necessary, so that people of all types and backgrounds can have the same chance to succeed. On the other are arguments that longstanding societal inequality makes a truly equal playing field inherently impossible, so accommodations must be made for specific groups from start to finish, with those groups thus entitled to an adjustment of the outcome of their efforts – since without such an adjustment, their equal success is unattainable. A difficulty on both sides of the incessant debate is that both require the viewing of specific groups as a totality, not as collections of individuals and certainly not on a case-by-case basis. This leads to talk about marginalized groups, as if all members who have one thing in common must of necessity have all things relevant to the debate in common. This is demonstrably incorrect and genuinely unfair no matter which side of the debate one happens to be on – but it is basic to arguments (and, when they are available, reasoned discussions) from all perspectives.

     The opportunity/outcome disparity shows up in ways large and small. One area that is very serious indeed involves higher education, and the concern about how that education is made available and administered is foundational to The Ultimate Guide to HBCUs. The book follows the tried-and-true Princeton Review format by devoting a two-page spread to each institution and providing plenty of basic data for families to use to guide them in doing more-in-depth research. There are financial facts, data on student makeup, lists of popular majors, contact and deadline information, and more – plus brief narratives about each school’s history and culture. Unlike other Princeton Review books, this one does not give lists ranking the schools, because “our goal was not to pit HBCUs against one another. Each has its own storied history and way of doing things…” But that is true of all colleges, of any type, and seems a bit disingenuous, since the ranking lists in other Princeton Review guidebooks are crucial in helping families decide which schools they should research further – for instance, top colleges for people with specific academic focuses. The underlying notion of The Ultimate Guide to HBCUs, though, is that the book is for families whose reason for choosing any one of these schools comes down to the fact that it is one of these schools.

     Primary author Braque Talley’s most-useful contribution to families’ reasoning is in his introductory essay, which seeks to dispel “myths about HBCUs,” discuss ways in which they are unique, and provide three reasons “Why You Should Choose an HBCU.” Students and families for whom Talley’s arguments and analyses resonate are the natural audience for this book, and are far more likely to benefit from it than anyone who sees the world differently or has a different take on the opportunity-vs.-outcome conundrum. Talley’s argument for HBCUs advocates them strongly for what he calls their “fit” for the book’s presumed readers. Comparing college search to shopping for a new suit, Talley writes that “non-HBCUs are the generic institutions that’ll do the job, but not perfectly. An HBCU, on the other hand, was designed for you and your needs from the start. It’s loose where you’d like for it to be loose, and it’s tight where you’d like for it to be tight.” Thus, any of these schools would seem to be equally good for the presumed readers of the book, the substantial differences among them downplayed for decision-making purposes even though, in individual descriptions, those differences are made clear. Just as the opportunity-vs.-outcome debate foundationally looks at specific people as members of groups rather than individuals, so does this book, as Talley’s “you and your needs” makes clear – it obviously assumes that all readers have the same needs, since Talley does not know readers individually.

     Similarly, The Ultimate Guide to HBCUs sees the schools profiled in its pages as being, first and foremost, members of a tight-knit group with substantial underlying similarities. Families who share this view will be most able to benefit from the statistical and analytical material devoted to each of the listed schools. But since the schools are simply presented alphabetically, not arranged geographically, by size, by preferred majors, by graduation rates, or by any sort of ranking that would elevate some over others, readers who have decided to focus on HBCUs should be prepared to spend considerable time deciding which characteristics matter most to them, then searching for colleges that possess those desirable-to-them-as-individuals elements. Just what is “ultimate” for students and their families in the book’s approach and layout is at best a matter of opinion; but certainly the book is a good place to start for those already committed to the HBCU experience and willing to invest sufficient time and effort to handle the narrowing-down of potentially compatible colleges on their own.

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