Historically black colleges are surging in popularity among African-Americans


Among high school seniors just now getting word from the college of their choice, some of the most excited are those who've been accepted by historically black schools.

Many of those schools are harder to get into this year -- a lot harder.

They are being flooded with applications from a new generation of black students seeking strong academic programs, relatively low tuition and a sense of shared community not to be found in predominantly white schools.

"I've already been admitted to Morehouse College in Atlanta," boasted Kyle Cruel, a senior at Central High School in Philadelphia and one of 3,112 applicants for 600 seats in Morehouse's freshman class.

"I know Atlanta is a long way from Philadelphia," he said, "but the school is like a brotherhood. It's like leaving your home and finding another home."

Mr. Cruel's views were typical of those of about 350 black students gathered in Philadelphia earlier last month for a college fair sponsored by the United Negro College Fund. It was the organization's first fair in Philadelphia in almost a decade.

"The students realize they are losing their heritage," said Marvin Dunlap, an admissions officer from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., as he touted his school's offerings at the fair. "On many white campuses," he said, "the students find they are not able to adjust."

But it's more than that. Black colleges have been marketing themselves more aggressively, picking up more national publicity and making substantial efforts to improve the quality of their instruction.

Their success comes at a time when the dwindling of the number of college-age students -- and the national recession -- have caused applications to drop sharply at many predominantly white private schools.

Among the private black colleges, Morehouse is showing a 16 percent increase in applications over last year. Xavier University in New Orleans reports an 18 percent increase. And Virginia Union University in Richmond has posted a 37 percent rise.

Many of the publicly funded black schools also show strong gains this year. Applications at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pa., have risen 22 percent, and Cheyney University in Delaware County, Pa., reports a 30 percent increase.

"It's been a fantastic year," said Cheyney's admissions director, Earl Acker. "I hesitate to say it because it's been almost unreal."

While total U.S. college enrollment rose 11 percent over the past five years, enrollment at the country's 104 historically black schools climbed 17 percent.

The schools admit whites, too, but typically about 95 percent of their students are black. The schools are called historically black because most were established after the Civil War to educate freed slaves.

While they enroll only about 20 percent of all the black students in higher education, the black schools have produced a disproportionately large share of the nation's black leaders -- 50 percent of black business leaders and elected officials, 75 percent of black military officers, 80 percent of black federal judges and 85 percent of black doctors, according to school officials.

In addition, the black colleges -- most of them small, liberal arts schools -- have kept alive a kind of education that has been lost at many large universities.

"Black colleges consider their mission to be teaching students rather than subjects," said Charles Willie, an education professor at Harvard University. "They take students where they are and move them to where they want to be. They have no belief that there is any such thing as an unworthy seeker of knowledge."

In the past decade, a number of the historically black schools have been plagued by financial problems and have struggled to maintain their accreditation. The difficulties led to two mergers and to the closing of one school, Bishop College in Dallas.

But the shakeout seems to be over. Last year, for instance, Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., won a yearlong battle to regain its accreditation. This spring, applications are up 50 percent over last year.

"Miles College is moving in a new direction," said Gloria Ann W. Beverly, admissions director. "We are very proud."

Nonetheless, black colleges still face a host of challenges: how to boost faculty salaries, how to increase endowment funds and how to hold down tuition so that they remain affordable for the low- and middle-income students who make up a high percentage of their student bodies.

L "There may be some shaky years ahead," predicted Mr. Willie.

School officials attribute the new interest in historically black schools in part to TV shows such as "A Different World" and "The Cosby Show."

Actor Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille, have given $20 million to Spelman College, an elite women's school in Atlanta.

The black schools also got a widely publicized boost last spring when former Philadelphia publishing magnate Walter H. Annenberg donated $50 million to the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for a consortium of 41 private black schools.

It was one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education, and it spurred $36 million more in private donations from such corporations as General Motors, Exxon and Philip Morris.

Hamish Maxwell, chairman of Philip Morris, noted that within nine years, minorities will make up one-third of the U.S. labor force. "Our nation must look to the historically black colleges for graduates sufficiently trained and in large enough numbers to keep America competitive," he said.

Officials at black schools say they have also developed more sophisticated ways to market their programs and recruit students in recent years. Using computerized lists, they have been able to target potential students more precisely and extend their reach well beyond their immediate geographic areas.

"We are doing extensive recruiting," said Jimmy Arrington, admissions director at Lincoln, which now looks as far away as Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta to find students.

Recruitment has also been enhanced by what many view as substantial improvements in academic programs, both for the exceptionally bright and for those who need remedial instruction.

Johnson C. Smith University, for example, has established an honors college, including a residential hall, for about 150 academically talented students. "It's been amazing," said Robert Albright, the school's president. "We've been able to recruit students away from the big Ivy League schools."

At Florida A&M; University in Tallahassee, President Frederick Humphries has visited students' homes to recruit top scholars and has promoted new scholarship programs, including one that allows about 100 students to spend their summers working for major corporations.

At Philander Smith College, a historically black school in Little Rock, Ark., affiliated with the United Methodist Church, officials say their intensive remedial program has helped boost enrollment from 600 to 800 over the past year.

Under the program, entering students can take basic reading and math classes in which they get a lot of individual attention. After a year, about 75 percent pass a test that allows them to begin college-level work. "In the larger schools, students don't get that kind of attention," said Annie Williams, admissions director.

But to many students, especially those who have grown up going to predominantly white schools, the sense of community in black colleges is the strongest draw.

Nichole McPherson is one of just a handful of blacks at Gwynedd Mercy Academy in Montgomery County, Pa. A junior, she is laying plans to apply next year at Spelman, where she wants to be a premed major.

"I look at it positively as a way of getting back to my roots," she said. "It's a sister and brotherhood kind of thing."

Ms. McPherson's mother, who took a day off from work to escort her daughter to the recent United Negro College Fund fair, applauds that.

"I want her in an environment where she will get all the encouragement she needs," said Ronnie McPherson, a secretary who attended predominantly white colleges. "A black school is the only choice for us."

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