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Some HBCUs See Lower COVID-19 Rates, Higher Enrollment Than Other Universities


New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that higher education enrollment is down across the country during the pandemic. But some historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, including North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, report higher enrollment numbers this year and lower coronavirus infection rates than predominantly white institutions. I'm joined now by two people from NCAT, as it's called. Todd Simmons is an associate vice chancellor at the university. Thanks for being with us.

TODD SIMMONS: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And Brenda Caldwell is student body president. Thank you very much for being with us.

BRENDA CALDWELL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: If we could, Mr. Simmons, let's begin with you. Why do you think enrollment at historically Black colleges and universities have increased at a time when so many other institutions are struggling?

SIMMONS: I can tell you that at North Carolina A&T, we've been on an upward enrollment trend for now eight years. And it really boils down to two things. It's a strategic drive of the university to continue to grow, particularly in the STEM programs. But secondly, it's the very special environment that students enjoy at A&T and, frankly, a great many other historically Black colleges and universities as well. It's very much a family environment here of support.

SIMON: How do you explain the low COVID-19 infection rates on your campus and other HBCUs?

SIMMONS: Our students have been extraordinarily disciplined around doing the things that we know you have to do - wearing a mask, socially distancing, washing their hands and sanitizing. But we also see showing up in our students a mindset that I think is very different than what you see on many other campuses around the country, and that's a sense of great responsibility and not wanting to be sent home or have to pivot to online instruction.

Keep in mind that persistently, two-thirds of our students are first generation in college. And so they may come from a mindset that says if they don't make the most of this opportunity, then another one might not arise.

SIMON: Ms. Caldwell, how do you work with students to try and keep them safe, keep infection rates low?

CALDWELL: I would say it's more so peer-to-peer interactions than anything, so people encouraging their friend groups not to gather and, hey, guys, maybe let's go outside to do something where we can social distance and we can wear our mask. Social media has been very effective in getting this messaging across to our students. And like Mr. Simmons said, that feeling of responsibility, I think, weighs heavily on our students as well.

SIMON: Ms. Caldwell, any gripes from your fellow students? You know, this is not what college should be all about.

CALDWELL: Yeah. So some of our freshmen - when we first came back, there was a little incident. And so upperclassmen on Twitter were upset, and they were like, you know, we can't do this, guys. We literally just got here. And a lot of the freshmen were saying, well, you all had a regular freshman year experience, and we're seeking that, too. And the messaging from upperclassmen was, we understand. We feel for you. But we're in a pandemic. So if we want to stay on campus, we need to set aside our desires for normalcy.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Simmons, as I don't have to tell you, coronavirus infection rates are climbing again, including in North Carolina. What special steps are you taking?

SIMMONS: As we see the rates climb, we're just continuing to emphasize all of those preventive measures, but really with a special message to students saying, you know, we understand you would like to get together, you'd like to have a party, you'd like to have a kick-back. But you can't do it.

So many of our students come from communities across North Carolina where coronavirus has been more widespread and more lethal and health care has not been as abundant. And so they're - they also bear that mindset, I think, of not wanting to go back to places where health care is hard to come by.

SIMON: Can you tell us what kind of contingency plans that you might be going through to try and keep students safe but also keep college going?

SIMMONS: We have an entire residence hall that's been set aside for quarantine and isolation purposes. And so as we have students who test positive who live on campus, then they are moved to that residence hall. But we're really stepping up our testing. And so for the past several weeks, we've been undergoing an intense period of aggressive testing in all of our residence halls. We feel like we're in a very good place. And we just can't take our eye off the ball. We have to keep doing those things that have gotten us this far.

SIMON: Well, Brenda Caldwell is student body president at North Carolina A&T State University. Todd Simmons is an associate vice chancellor at the school. I want to thank you both very much for being with us. And good luck to you and everyone else on campus. Thank you.

CALDWELL: Thank you so much for having us.

SIMMONS: Thank you, Scott. Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.