Natalie Norton sits alone in a Towson University student cafeteria. The pre-med freshman from Silver Spring hasn't made any close friends yet, and many of her high school buddies now attend nearby Morgan State University, a historically black college.
"I would have preferred to go to Morgan," says Norton, who is African-American. "But I didn't even apply because my grades were really good." Attending a mostly black school would have been "more fun," she adds with a wistful smile. "But academics-wise, they're not as strict. It looks a lot better if you graduate from a majority-white school."
Norton's decision - and the disquieting rationale behind it - represents one of the biggest challenges facing Maryland's four black colleges, experts say, and sheds a light on their recent struggles.
At the direction of federal officials, the state has targeted about $400 million to the long-underfunded black campuses since 2001, in an effort to atone for a racist past and eliminate any remaining vestiges of segregation. The spending was part of the latest desegregation plan required by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
The ultimate goal: to make the colleges "comparable and competitive" with majority-white schools in "all facets of their operations and programs," according to the plan.
But during a period of big investment, Maryland's black colleges have experienced troubling declines in traditional measures of academic performance. And despite a series of federal desegregation plans stretching back to the 1960s, the four schools - Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, Bowie State University in Prince George's County and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore - remain in a distinct second tier in the state's higher education system:
Only 38 percent of freshmen at Maryland's black colleges graduate within six years from any state campus - about half the 71 percent graduation rate at the state's majority-white schools, according to an analysis done by Maryland's higher education agency at The Sun's request.
Graduation rates at three of the four black colleges are lower today than when the most recent desegregation effort began. At Coppin, only 21 percent of freshmen who enrolled in 2001 graduated within six years from any state institution. Even at Morgan, the only campus where the graduation rate has inched higher, it was just 42 percent in 2006.
The average SAT score of African-American students at Maryland's black colleges is 778 out of 1600 - about 300 points lower on average than the scores of black students who attend traditionally white schools, according to state data on Maryland high school graduates.
More students are enrolling in the state's black colleges, but more are also dropping out. Second-year retention rates at UMES, for instance, have steadily declined in recent years. In 2006, nearly a third of students didn't return for their sophomore year.
A shrinking minority of white students are enrolling in black colleges in Maryland, though the funding initiative was based on the assumption that the schools would become more competitive and therefore more diverse. At Bowie, the percentage of white students on campus has dropped from 14 percent in 2000 to just 6 percent in 2006. The percentages of whites at the other schools range from 2.5 percent at Morgan to 11 percent at UMES.
Meanwhile, about 45 percent of Maryland's African-American undergraduates are enrolled at majority-white colleges - and they have made notable progress in the past six years. At all but one such campus, the gap in graduation rates between black students and all students has significantly narrowed or been eliminated altogether.
State education officials say it is too soon to expect recent investments in black colleges to show up in academic statistics. Moreover, they argue that the bleak picture such data depict is fundamentally misleading, given the colleges' mission of opening the doors of higher education to disadvantaged students.
"The question is: Are these institutions serving our state well?" said university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "And I would say, absolutely they are. They don't graduate [students] at the rate we want them to, but they are giving educational opportunity to thousands of students from low-income families whose test scores on average are at the lowest end of the scale."
Nationally, the graduation rate at historically black colleges was about 37 percent in 2004, according to the most recent Department of Education statistics. At traditionally white institutions, 54 percent of undergraduates received a degree within six years.
At a time when Maryland has been grappling with a $1.7 billion budget deficit, the relatively low graduation rate at the state's black colleges also renders them increasingly expensive. If one considers state funding for the schools' operating expenses in terms of degrees conferred, Maryland spends well over $50,000 a year for every bachelor's degree granted at Coppin, Morgan State and UMES - compared with less than $20,000 per degree at Towson and Salisbury universities.
The reasons for these disparities belie easy analysis and raise questions bound up in racial politics that make many educators uncomfortable.
Should academically underprepared students admitted to black colleges be referred instead to community colleges? Should historically black colleges be required to recruit more non-black students, at the risk of diluting their historical identity? Should taxpayers continue to support race-identified institutions whose reason for existing - legalized segregation - no longer exists?
"The time has not yet arrived when we can have a truly candid and open conversation" about black colleges, said former university system chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. "It's politically sensitive, personally sensitive."
But some black-college faculty, worried about the future of the institutions they love, are beginning to publicly demand a soul-searching mission on campus and in Annapolis.
"When 70 percent of our students do not graduate, we have broken some lives," said Coppin professor John L. Hudgins. "We have made some promises we did not keep. We have built up some dreams that we have shattered."
Founded mostly after the Civil War, the nation's black colleges were for nearly a century the only colleges open to most African-Americans, and they were a powerful springboard to the professional middle class and positions of leadership.
Today, nearly half of all black congressmen and lawyers, 80 percent of black judges and an eighth of black chief executives are graduates of black colleges, according to a recent Harvard University analysis. In Annapolis, about two-thirds of the 40-member legislative black caucus list a black college on their resumes.
But as majority-white colleges began to integrate after 1960s desegregation laws were enacted, Maryland's best-prepared black students began populating freshmen classes at schools that once would have shunned them.
"Top-caliber Negroes are now the most sought-after students at prestigious private colleges in the North," proclaimed a 1966 article in The Sun about 15 black freshmen at the Johns Hopkins University, which admitted its first African-American student in 1944.
More recently, moderately selective public colleges such as Towson, Salisbury State and Frostburg State have embarked on aggressive recruitment of low-income and minority students.
It's had a "skimming effect," said Maryland's higher education secretary James E. Lyons Sr., a former president of two black colleges, in Maryland and Mississippi.
"If you have white institutions that have been funded better historically, where the campuses have been nicer historically, and who now decide that they're going to reach out to African-American students and work very hard to attract them, that's a tall order" to compete with, Lyons said. "It's a real challenge."
To be sure, black campuses are not merely colleges of last resort. They still attract many high-ability students who attend because of alumni connections, academic specialties, social and cultural opportunities, and the myriad other reasons that play into the college-selection process.
Keisha White, 28, chose to attend Washington's private Howard University and then Morgan State after graduating from the exclusive Bryn Mawr School in North Baltimore.
"I wanted to be inspired," said the English major. "I had gone to a predominantly white ... high school, and it was good for me to be grounded and around black professionals who had made it."
Nakita Clark, a Coppin junior from Annapolis, said she "always wanted to go to [a historically black college] to support their academic standings." The elementary education major with a 3.8 grade average praises the Coppin faculty for nurturing her ambitions. "I am around 'my' kind of people all the time," she said. "It's like one big family here."
But in the face of extreme competition for highly qualified African-American students, black colleges in Maryland and around the country have tweaked their historic academic mission. Today they welcome more young black men and women who have graduated from high school unprepared for college-level work.
Consequently, these colleges should not be judged by the same definitions of "success" as traditional schools, many educators argue.
About two-thirds of freshmen at Maryland's black colleges need remedial help with college-level reading, writing or math, compared with just 10 percent of students at predominantly white colleges.
Most black-college advocates think that enrolling higher-risk African-American students in universities is a moral imperative and sound public policy.
"Historically black colleges are institutions that were founded as vehicles of access to education for the descendants of slaves, essentially," said Bowie State President Mickey L. Burnim.
Burnim acknowledges that Bowie's minimally selective admissions policy increases the chances that more students will fail to earn a degree, but he says that inclusion, rather than exclusion, is his abiding philosophy.
"To the extent that we have folks who are still suffering from the vestiges of segregation and racism, I think we need institutions that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of such folk," he said.
Academic preparation alone does not explain the low college-completion rates at black colleges. Students who attend these institutions are also far more likely to come from low-income families, work part time to finance their education, and be the first in their family to strive for a bachelor's degree, according to state data.
Every one of those characteristics is associated with a higher dropout risk.
Low-income students are more likely to drop in and out of school while they work to finance their education, extending the time it takes to receive a degree, says Colleen T. O'Brien of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
O'Brien argues that "four-year" bachelor degrees now measured in six-year graduation rates ought to be assessed in 10-year cycles, or longer, to better capture the successes of these nontraditional students.
UMES President Thelma B. Thompson disdains the use of graduation rates altogether. "Forget percentages," she said during a recent interview. "Look at the raw numbers."
Since 2001, full-time undergraduate enrollment at the picturesque Princess Anne campus has increased nearly 40 percent to about 3,300. During that period, six-year graduation rates have dropped from around 50 percent to about 40 percent, though the total number of bachelor's degree recipients has increased.
But as the student body grows and graduation rates fall, doesn't that mean many more students are also failing to graduate?
Thompson doesn't see it that way. "If I enrolled 10 students five years ago, I enroll 14 students today," she said. "You can't call that a failure. Nobody can convince me."
Irwin Goldstein, a senior vice chancellor of the university system, points out that many students who have left Maryland's black colleges without a degree eventually enroll as working adults at the state's online college, the University of Maryland, University College.
In the last decade, black undergraduate enrollment at UMUC has grown from about 2,800 to about 7,200 - by far the largest black student body in the state. And in 2006, UMUC conferred more bachelor's degrees to black students than any other institution in Maryland.
"These are the students who have gone to some of those [historically black] schools, dropped out and are coming back years later to get a degree," Goldstein said. "Sure, it would be better for all concerned if they received the degree immediately. But these are not people who are necessarily giving up."
Nor is "giving up" necessarily a failure or a waste of taxpayer investment, state higher education officials contend, citing increased salaries for workers with even partial college experience.
Orlan M. Johnson, a member of the university system's governing Board of Regents, takes an optimistic long-term view about the future of black colleges in Maryland. The children of current dropouts will be academically better-prepared because of their parents' partial college experience, he said.
"It's the legacy-creation that actually ends up drawing the top students," Johnson said.
And since family connections are major considerations in college choice, he predicts that many of these students will attend historically black colleges as well, thereby driving up the academic quality of their students and graduation rates.
But explaining away the lower performance of black colleges doesn't sit well with Hudgins, the Coppin professor, who thinks that such rationalizations can be self-fulfilling.
"Lower expectations, lower accountability," he said. "And voila: You get what you expected."
Hudgins thinks the state needs to demand better results from campus leaders.
"If College Park were graduating 24 percent of its students, all hell would be breaking loose on every square mile of this state," he said. "Why has Coppin been allowed to continue what it is doing? Why has UMES been allowed to do that? And even great Morgan?"
Raymond C. Pierce, a North Carolina Central University law school dean who headed the Office of Civil Rights when it negotiated the recent Maryland desegregation plan, said state systems of higher education have for many years "allowed management to exist at historically black colleges that they would not allow to exist at traditionally white institutions. And in my opinion that is discriminatory."
Maryland officials, under pressure from the federal government to hold campuses accountable for student achievement, have pledged greater scrutiny of individual campuses - including standardized testing of what students have learned during their time in college.
"There is a greater call for accountability in higher education than I can remember in recent years," said Lyons, the higher education secretary.
Along with university systems in 17 other states, the University System of Maryland pledged in November to reduce, by at least half, the large and persistent gap in graduation rates that separate minority and low-income students from the rest of the post-secondary population.
To do that by 2015, Kirwan acknowledges, there will have to be special focus on the state's historically black universities.
Within six years, Kirwan said, nearly 60 percent of Maryland's public high school graduates will be minorities, the vast majority of them African-American and many of them low-income.
Kirwan and campus leaders say that black colleges can significantly improve their performance with better financial aid packages, and by immersing high-risk freshmen in mentoring, academic advising and other counseling programs that have been shown to reduce college dropout rates.
Such programs have already been initiated at Maryland's black colleges with about $60 million in enhancement funds distributed under the federal agreement. Hundreds of millions more dollars have gone to capital projects, such as a $100 million physical education complex now under construction at Coppin. State officials say such projects will encourage students to become more engaged in campus life and should reduce the dropout rate.
"A lot of students don't have constructive things to do," said Coppin senior Andrew Hall at the groundbreaking ceremony for the complex. "This facility will allow for teams to practice and for students to be out there at the same time."
Coppin has also ramped up its tutoring program, said provost Sadie R. Gregory, and is becoming more aggressive about staying in touch with students who have dropped out for financial reasons and encouraging them to return.
At UMES, where it's not uncommon for two-thirds of freshmen to test at a seventh-grade level in mathematics, math professor William E. Chapin praises Thompson for having instituted, in recent years, a cap of about 25 students on class size for remedial-level math courses, despite the added expense of hiring more instructors.
"We are doing better because those classes are now small," Chapin said. "But it is going to be several years before that will be generally reflected in graduation statistics."
Burnim believes he can raise graduation rates at Bowie to around 50 percent within three or four years by creating a more nurturing campus environment. When he arrived in September 2006, students told him that the administrative staff was often rude and dismissive of their needs. "We were not as student-centered an institution as we could be," Burnim said.
An unfriendly bureaucratic culture is also a perennial complaint of students at Morgan State, and President Earl S. Richardson has previously vowed to address it with a campus-wide "customer service" initiative.
Richardson declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this article.
Beyond those initiatives, few educators are contemplating more fundamental reform of the state's black colleges, such as raising admissions standards or focusing on desegregation.
While most majority-white colleges try to limit the number of remedial students, administrators at black schools tend to dismiss suggestions that they might refer more underprepared applicants to community colleges. That would be a betrayal of their mission, they say.
"You might as well tell them they have no hope," said Ronnie E. Holden, UMES vice president for administrative affairs, noting that dropout rates are even higher at the state's public two-year institutions.
Only about 20 percent of African-American community college students in Maryland graduate or transfer to a four-year college within four years of enrolling - about half the rate of white students, according to state records.
Still, for those students who do eventually transfer from a community college to a black school, the likelihood of receiving a bachelor's degree is generally higher than for those who enter as freshmen.
At Coppin, for example, more than 40 percent of students who transferred from a two-year college received a bachelor's degree within five years, about double the college's freshman graduation rate.
Striking a different tone from most of his colleagues, incoming Coppin President Reginald Avery has said he will reassess the college's entire admissions process when he takes office this month, and may decide that more prospective students need to begin their post-secondary education at a community college.
As for the declining representation of white students at Maryland's black colleges, the enrollment of nonblack students at those schools no longer appears to be a principal benchmark for successful "desegregation."
In June 2000, Wendella P. Fox, the federal civil rights official monitoring Maryland's desegregation plan, told The Sun that if the effort fails to attract white students to historically black campuses, the state would not necessarily be in violation of federal regulations.
That's a shift from previous agreements with the federal government, in which racial integration was a major goal. Under a 1985 desegregation plan, Maryland agreed to increase white enrollment at black colleges from 9 percent to 19 percent.
In 2006, the percentage of whites attending the state's black colleges was just 5 percent, while African-American students made up about 14 percent of enrollments at traditionally white institutions. Fox has declined to speak about Maryland's progress and has given no indication of when her office will decide whether the state has successfully eliminated all vestiges of its formerly segregated system.
State officials are not holding their breaths. In 1989, the last time Maryland completed a desegregation plan, the Office of Civil Rights took a decade to issue its response.
UNIVERSITIES AT A GLANCE
Bowie State University
Undergraduate enrollment: 4,283
Most popular majors: business, nursing, communications
Morgan State University
Location: Northeast Baltimore
Undergraduate enrollment: 5,936
Most popular majors: business, communications, electrical engineering
University of Maryland, Eastern Shore
Location: Princess Anne
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,615
Most popular majors: biology, criminal justice, business
Coppin State University
Location: West Baltimore
Undergraduate enrollment: 3,242
Most popular majors: nursing, business, criminal justice
[Sources: Maryland Higher Education Commission, campus Web sites]