Since 2020, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have seen a steady increase in enrollment.  With the recent decision by the Supreme Court eliminating affirmative action, enrollment at HBCUs is expected to increase even more.  

Black students are making conscious decisions to attend universities and colleges where they feel welcomed and seen. For over 25 years, the Chicago Football Classic (CFC) has sought to raise awareness and drive enrollment at HBCUs. 

“More than a football game, the CFC is a celebration of HBCU culture and an opportunity to expose Chicago high school students to the possibilities that await by attending a HBCU,” CFC co-founder Larry Huggins told The TRiiBE.

This weekend, the CFC returns to Soldier Field on September 2, for the first time since 2020, as Central State University faces Mississippi Valley State. With a focus on higher education and scholastic achievement, this year the CFC awarded over $300,000 in scholarships to 20 Chicagoland students and it will also host a college fair at Soldier Field before the game. At the college fair, students can chat with participating HBCUs, and they also can leave with college acceptance letters from their desired university.  

“Students should bring a copy of their transcripts with their GPA and any additional information that will help a recruiter to know them better,” Huggins said. 

Stephanie Coleman, alderperson of Chicago’s 16th Ward on the South Side, said along with it being a family event, she enjoys the culture of the CFC and the scholarships that are given to deserving students. Ald. Coleman and every member of the Chicago Aldermanic Black Caucus is sending a total of 2,000 middle and high school students to attend this year’s event.  

“We must expose our children to these opportunities to meet recruiters or obtain funding for school,” Coleman said. “Whether you are from Lawndale or Englewood, our kids have to know that the impossible can actually be possible.”

The CFC was founded in 1997 by Black businessmen Larry Huggins, Everett Rand and Tim Rand. After attending the Circle City Classic, which is held each year in Indianapolis, they wanted to bring a similar event to the city of Chicago. 

“When we went to Indianapolis, we saw hotels and restaurants filled with African Americans from all over. We saw the impact and we wanted to bring that same experience to the city of Chicago,” Huggins said. “This game is important because it gives these HBCUs access to an untapped talent pool that they may not have access to otherwise.”

The CFC attracts students from around the Chicagoland area and plays a role in hundreds of students attending HBCUs, making Chicago a major recruiting city. As of 2023, Chicago has sent over 600 students to Central State University, with students averaging about $800,000 in scholarships, according to Huggins. 

Unlike the corporately-sponsored bowl games held at the end of the season at the top level of college football, Black football classics are held during the regular season and often involve weekends packed with social events, concerts, tailgate parties and the “Battle of the Bands” at halftime of the game. The entire experience of attending an HBCU is interwoven throughout the game and weekend of your average Classic. 

Huggins said it is important for students interested in attending an HBCU to see different aspects of the HBCU experience before deciding where to attend college. 

“We have a series of events during Classic weekend because we want our kids to understand that HBCUs are a loving and nurturing environment that encourages our kids to be their best, Huggins said.

Group of teens holding their scholarship awards
Photo provided by Chicago Football Classic

Huggins believes that for Black students, HBCUs could fill the gap left by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to eliminate affirmative action policies and could play a huge role in their growth and development. Ald. Coleman agrees with that and speaks to the way HBCUs are being exposed to more students across the country now. 

“Right now, our children need to take advantage of these times. These schools point kids in the right direction into their chosen career paths and help mold them into the adults they will become,” Coleman said.

With college tuition rates rising across the country, paying for school is another barrier many Black students face. HBCUs typically receive less funding than their white counterparts and some aspiring HBCU students think their chances of receiving funding for school is impossible. However, Huggins said HBCUs are giving away millions of dollars in scholarships. 

“From band scholarships and academic scholarships to athletic scholarships, the idea that HBCUs don’t give scholarships to deserving students is false,” Larry Huggins said.

Huggins said he would like to make Labor Day weekend the official date of the Classic annually, but the schedule is contingent on the dates of Chicago Bears home games. He said having a permanent date will allow the CFC to plan more games in advance and bring larger HBCUs like Jackson State, Grambling and Tennessee State to Chicago. With the Chicago Bears contemplating a move out of Soldier Field, the process of securing a permanent holiday weekend date may become easier in the near future.

This year’s CFC weekend also features a Black Greek Step show at Chicago State, an HBCU Alumni Reunion picnic at Rainbow Beach, a pep rally at Daley Plaza and golf outing. In addition to the college and career fair, game day events include the tailgate party, a teen fest featuring a battle of the high school bands and the much-anticipated CFC halftime show. 

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE.