Najuane Phillpotts, 17, woke up extra early Wednesday morning and put on a black button-down shirt and tie.
As he drove to Milford Mill Academy, he kept thinking that this was the day that would change his life.
His school hosted an instant admission college fair, bringing together 15 historically black colleges and hundreds of students from 20 Baltimore County high schools who packed Milford Mill’s gymnasium to meet with college representatives. After just a few minutes of discussion, many walked away with an acceptance letter — or two or three.
Phillpotts was conditionally accepted into four colleges before noon — including his dream school, Hampton University in Virginia.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “Getting accepted right away took off a lot of pressure.”
In all, the colleges offered more than 950 acceptances to Baltimore County seniors, the school system said.
The goal of the fair was to close the enrollment gap in the number of minorities seeking a higher education, said Ken Berlett Jr., head of the counseling department at Milford Mill and organizer of the event.
“We’re hoping to have a couple hundred kids leave with college acceptances and put a dent in the gap of minority kids going on to four-year colleges,” Berlett said.
Students often walked away from the college booths smiling, many running to hug their friends or call their parents with the good news.
Millford Mill senior Tasia Fisher texted a photo of her Lincoln University acceptance letter to her mother. When she got home, she said, the letter was going straight onto the refrigerator.
“It’s a relief,” she said. “You have a paper instantly in your hands instead of having to wait.”
Berlett said the students he serves often face barriers during the college application process. Many don’t know how to navigate the bureaucratic hurdles, such as paying steep application fees. Some may be the first in their families to be going to college.
“Our kids steer away because they don’t know what to do in terms of pursuing education at the next level,” Berlett said. “Our goal is to eliminate the application process and the application fees.”
Wednesday’s event was free for all students, and transportation was provided by their schools. Students brought their high school transcripts, SAT scores and optional writing samples and recommendation letters.
If their materials fulfilled the college’s requirements — typically, a minimum GPA and a certain standardized test score — the students left knowing they have the option to attend a four-year college. The fair targeted students of color, although students of all races were invited, Berlett said.
About 39 percent of Baltimore County public school students are black, about 9 percent are Hispanic and about 7 percent are Asian, according to the district. Forty percent are white.
“For us, the biggest achievement gap has been in the pursuit of higher education outside our doors,” Berlett said.
All four of Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities — Morgan State University, Bowie State University, Coppin State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — attended. Representatives from schools in Washington, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Georgia, West Virginia and Virginia also came. The majority of schools offered on-the-spot acceptance letters, though some required students to follow up with online applications to make the process official.
“The confidence I see in them now that they’ve been accepted is really great,” said Milford Mill principal Kyria Joseph, a Morgan State alumna.
Enrollment at HBCUs across the country is growing, though more slowly than at predominantly white institutions. The number of students enrolled at HBCUs nationally rose by 32 percent from 1976 to 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. During the same period, total enrollment in all degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent.
Morgan State’s new freshman class is about 1,200 students, its largest in seven years. At Bowie State, enrollment has increased by more than 10 percent since 2013, and it, too, welcomed a record-size freshman class this fall. UMES and Coppin State have experienced a slight spikes in enrollment.
HBCUs largely serve students who come from low-income households. About 40 percent of freshmen at four-year HBCUs receive Pell Grants, federally funded financial aid, according to a recent report by The Education Trust, a national advocacy organization that promotes academic achievement among students of color and low-income students. When compared to other schools with similar student bodies, Ed Trust found HBCUs have better graduation rates for black students than non-HBCUs — about 38 percent versus 32 percent.
Berlett said that while Milford Mill welcomes all kinds of colleges for student recruitment visits and fairs, including private universities, state institutions, community colleges and more, it was important to have this fair focused on HBCUs. The majority of students at his school are African-American.
“It’s not that we’re pushing students toward what’s familiar,” he said, “they need an environment where they’ve found success before.”
Amid strained race relations, including on college campuses, more students of color are looking for “an atmosphere where they feel more safe, more understanding,” said Aaries Reed, Morgan State’s assistant director of undergraduate admission and recruitment. “Students are finding comfort in HBCUs.”
Though it may seem novel, the concept of offering instant admission during a college fair has been around for years, school officials said. Eliminating application barriers for potential students could serve to bolster campus populations and open doors of opportunity to more students, said college administrators.
“When we can have them leave with that instant gratification, they absolutely love it,” Reed said. “The counselors love it, the students love it and it helps the seniors stay motivated, knowing they have a great school that absolutely wants them.”
Later in the day, high school juniors also attended the college fair to talk with representatives about their college plans.
“It’s really giving students the opportunity to learn more about HBCUs,” said Germel Clarke, Bowie State’s admissions director. “We want to give students in that area more access to us.”
Maryland’s four historically black institutions have been engaged in a legal battle with the state for the past decade. Attorneys representing a coalition of HBCUs say Maryland fostered segregation by allowing well-funded core academic programs at traditionally white universities to undermine similar ones at historically black schools.
The coalition has proposed transferring some academic programs now offered at traditionally white universities to historically black institutions as a way for them to attract a larger and more racially diverse student body. The state argues this plan is destructive, and has pitched spending millions of dollars instead on marketing, multicultural centers, and scholarships aimed at increasing diversity.
A U.S. district judge is still considering next steps in a case that could dramatically alter higher education in the state.
“We’re being patient,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which is behind the lawsuit. “We are on standby.”