Boston — Through the misty dawn appeared an old barn, as a bus loaded with 39 high school students from Boston wheeled into the entrance of a 275-acre estate in Cheyney, Pa.
A few drowsy bus riders yawned at the scene, closed their eyes, and added 40 winks to their rolling rest -- then awoke with a start. Dr. Thomas Payne, minister in Boston of the First Church of Roxbury, boomed: ''We are now arriving at Cheyney State College, the oldest black college in the nation, the first stop on the 1982 Southern Black College Tour. Prepare to unload!''
Those city-oriented Bostonians who looked out on the aging barn at the entrance were unimpressed, being unaware of the history the barn and college symbolized. They were making the first stop on a tour that would take them to 13 black colleges within eight days during their semester break. Most of them had never seen a black college.
Dr. Payne and the Roxbury-North Dorchester Area Project Action Committee had extolled the values of more than 100 ''traditionally black colleges'' to them for several months, offering these schools as alternatives to the expensive education available to them in Massachusetts.
The committee knew about the concerns of black, college-bound students: How would they pay for college? How would their grades affect admissions? What were the minimum allowable test scores?
Back to the Cheney barn. These students learned that tradition says the Cheyney barn was an underground railroad stop for escaped black slaves in their trek northward toward Canada and freedom. This was a railroad without tracks, a Pennsylvania stop at which Quakers hid runaways from bounty hunters, fed them, and helped them move to their next depot on the road to liberty.
Quakers founded Cheyney in 1837 in Philadelphia as the Institute for Colored Youth. Today Cheyney is one of only four black colleges in the North -- the others are Wilberforce and Central State Universities in Xenia, Ohio, and Shaw College in Detroit.
Most black colleges, including Cheyney, are in rural areas or small towns very much unlike urban Boston. The tour group visited other schools in isolated places - Delaware State in Dover, Del.; the University of Maryland-Eastern Shores in Princess Anne, Md.; St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Va.
Off the bus at Cheyney, the visitors were rushed into a small assembly room. As they sat down to listen to their first pep talk about college, the males were advised, ''Hats off, please!'' This message rested with them at each college they visited -- men take their hats off indoors.
The students had their own set of questions:
''What federal aid is available to me?''
''Can I get work-study?''
''Will my Massachusetts grants be accepted here?''
''Are there coed dorms here?''
''How much does it cost to come here?''
''What studies do you offer?''
''Do you have a radio or television station?''
Like most black colleges, Cheyney State has expanded its curriculum offerings during the past decade, moving away from the traditional - education, social work, and pre-professional study -- as their mainstays.
Today Cheyney calls itself the ''choice of the '80s,'' a growing college of 3 ,000 students, many of them commuters -- away from the frenzy of Philadelphia, but close enough for easy commuting or convenient off-campus recreation. It offers a variety of ''growth'' studies:
Business administration; computer and information sciences; environmental science; earth and space science; industrial technology; hotel, restaurant, and institutional management; and urban studies.
Cheyney's campus was moved to its present site, the Squire Cheyney farm 24 miles west of Philadelphia, in 1903. Pennsylvania bought the school in 1920, renaming it State Normal at Cheyney in 1921, Cheyney State Teachers in 1953, and Cheyney State College in 1959.
Despite its age and traditions, Cheyney faces many of the same problems confronting 100-plus other predominantly black colleges in today's troubled economic times.
At Cheyney these include: pending reductions in federal aid to education; what local officials term ''indifferent'' budgeting from the Pennsylvania legislature; and a student body, 90 percent of whom receiving some form of aid.
In addition, like black state colleges around the nation, Cheyney is involved in a federal court order (Adams vs. Bell) that requires states to enroll more white students in their black schools and more black students on white campuses. Even with new ''growth'' studies and its location in the North, Cheyney attracts only 10 percent of its students from the white community.
Its officials, however, see a bright future. Madeline Johnson -- she has moved up from student activities to career-services officer -- calls her job an asset to students. She finds jobs for them after graduation, or helps them enter postgraduate study -- in contrast to the days when black colleges offered graduates little more than a few ''to whom it may concern'' letters of recommendation.
''We seek new and creative ideas to prepare students for job-career-oriented classes geared toward career placement,'' Miss Johnson said. ''We hold seminars. And big-name companies -- Bell Laboratories, Dupont, department stores -- send their recruiters to this campus. We prepare students for success.''
The next stop for the travelers was Delaware State College, on the other side of Philadelphia in Dover, Del., a campus of 2,200 students, 35 percent white.
''We have come a long way since I came here 12 years ago,'' says Elizabeth C. Dix, public relations officer. ''Our facilities are new; our cultural program has improved; our outreach involves many people.''
Val Crayton, admissions officer, delivered the Delaware State pitch to the visiting high schoolers: ''Small enough to know you, large enough to meet your educational needs, cheap enough to attract students from Massachusetts.'' She appraised courses of study as job- and upward-mobility oriented.
''We want to get you here, and we want you to finish, too,'' she said.
The outlook is bleak for student aid, but ''our placement is good in accounting, special education, computer education,'' she added.
Among the enthusiastic guides was a New Englander and senior from Southington , Conn., Carolyn Bentley, who is also ''Miss Delaware State.'' At Cheyney on academic scholarship, she said: ''I came strictly as a bookworm who knew nobody. I made a 3.5 average on campus, met lots of new friends. I enjoy campus life.''
Miss Bentley calls her education ''excellent,'' giving her a choice of job offerings with employer-supported advanced study as she anticipates graduation.
''Black colleges are not repositories for students who cannot make it elsewhere,'' Dr. Arthur E. Bragg of the chemistry department told the visitors. ''We have upgraded our science department and laboratories.''
Back onto the bus. Next stop, a publicly supported college on the Maryland coast; then on to the private, church-supported St. Paul's College in Virginia.