Howard University sits on a Hilltop of its own, some 35 blocks north and east of Georgetown. Long emblematic of academic achievement in the black community, Howard has seen recent difficulties attracting a pool of strong undergraduate applicants and funding students’ educations without excessive debt. These trends illustrate that the school is growing less competitive, and when any institution hits financial struggles, it runs into the danger of losing its core values. The story of modern-day Howard parallels that of Georgetown as a Catholic university a few decades ago. And just as Georgetown’s Catholic identity was worth protecting then, Howard’s status as historically black is instrumental to the school today.

Howard University and other historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs, used to hold a monopoly on the nation’s most accomplished black students, according to a recent feature in The New York Times (“Hard Times at Howard U.,” Feb. 4, 2014). But other elite colleges’ ability to recruit black students and finance college educations with limited debt have made it difficult for Howard and other HBCUs to attract as many qualified applicants as they used to.

As a Catholic university, Georgetown experienced a similar brain drain in the 1940s and 1950s. Until the 1960s, Georgetown’s student body remained mostly, if not exclusively, Catholic. But when other elite universities started welcoming Catholic students, Georgetown saw its applicant pool move swiftly toward the Ivy League.

At this crossroads, Georgetown kept by its mission as a Jesuit university. While Georgetown is no longer the single institution all high-achieving Catholics aspire to attend, it has maintained its status as one of the most important institutions of Catholic learning in the United States. Georgetown held on to the key values that were present in its Jesuit creation, and it paid off.

Howard finds itself at a crossroads similar to that of Georgetown in the 1960s, and although difficult choices about the future of its Hilltop must be made, Howard should continue to treat its HBCU status as a source of pride. It will pay dividends in years to come.

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