Taking a second look at a predominantly black college

Happiness is spelled H-a-m-p-t-o-n to Caroline L. Lattimore of Durham, N.C.

She reminisced fondly about Hampton Institute, one of the nation's most prestigious black colleges and her alma mater:

''When I graduated from high school in Winston-Salem in 1963, I wanted so much to go to a white state school which was opening to black students for the first time. But I was not accepted.''

Hampton, however, did admit her.

Today she holds a PhD earned at Duke University, a school that only very rarely considered a black student's application in the early 1960s. Her present job? She is assistant provost and dean of minority affairs at Duke.

''I felt an ultimate happiness at Hampton,'' she recalled. ''I was challenged intellectually and socially. I remember that I cried when I looked at all my campus pictures five years after I finished. I understand why.''

To enroll or not to enroll as a student at one of the nation's 100-plus ''traditionally black colleges'' - described as schools founded by 1950 to serve black students - is a dilemma many black youths face today. Caught up in the greater freedom to enroll at predominantly white colleges, even in the South, young blacks have tended to bypass black colleges in recent years.

And black colleges are being squeezed from two directions: first, by four-year white colleges tapping black students as a new resource at a time when the number of young, college-age people aged 18 to 24 is dwindling; and also by two-year junior (or community) colleges that have neither the strict admission standards nor the high tuition fees of baccalaureate institutions.

Less than 20 percent of the nation's estimated 1.2 million black students enrolled in higher education attend the traditional black colleges. Because of the current economic squeeze on the incomes of the nation's black people, however, many parents and potential college students are taking another look at black colleges, which are more reasonably priced than predominantly white schools.

In Boston Dr. Thomas Payne, a black college graduate and minister of the First Church in Roxbury, and a community agency, Roxbury-North Dorchester Area Planning Action Council, organized a tour of black colleges for black students in Boston area high schools.

Hampton and Howard University, the wealthiest black colleges in the country, were among the 13 campuses they visited.

Howard, in the nation's capital - with 12,000 students from all 50 states and 90 nations, 17 colleges and professional schools, and 60 major fields, television and radio stations, a hotel, 15 varsity athletic teams, a hospital, three art galleries, and various research centers - is the nation's largest and certainly among the most prestigious of black colleges.

Founded in 1867 ''to educate the newly freed slaves,'' Howard is America's only college funded by the federal government.

A private school with 3,200 students, Hampton is the black American college with the largest endowment, $38 million. Freshman Nadine Foster of Boston greeted the visitors ''from home,'' praising the institute as a ''family campus'' with a ''no nonsense'' attitude toward education.

Located on the ocean front in Virginia's tidewater area, Hampton's rustic scenery and warm sea breezes provided a relaxed setting for the visitors. Their hosts were members of the voluntary Student Recruitment Team of students that operates through the admissions office. These volunteers conduct campus tours, visit high schools, and ''try to relate to young people.''

Yvette P. Walker of Portsmouth, Va., secretary of the team, beamed as she pointed out historic structures and modern classroom buildings, the new Marine Science Center, and the sprawling grounds. ''We give an honest tour, and let visitors see the real Hampton and meet our fellow students,'' she smiled.

At Howard, the Bostonians were not greeted by a student group. They were met by an admissions official. They were awed by the size of the university, its informality, its traditions. They ate lunch on campus as they did at Hampton.

These teen-agers, like other black youth, are reassessing their post-high-school plans because of these developments:

* Cutbacks in federal and state student aid, already executed or contemplated , are forcing them to carefully assess how far their lean financial assets will take them. Some who would have gone to a white school may be inclined to enter a more reasonably priced black college.

* Students in the North, not inclined to look southward, are being encouraged to attend black colleges as institutions that inspire leadership, provide role models, and encourage individual initiative, and give black youth incentives not often found at northern universities.

* A number of black colleges now compare favorably with campuses in the Boston area - in facilities, courses offered, campus atmosphere, and quality educaton.

These trends will mean closer evaluation of black colleges. They may indicate a more demanding student body for these institutions, and in turn better academic standards.

These factors are acknowledged by Miss Lattimore, who works to retain black students at Duke. Although she advocates increased black enrollment at Duke, she says many black high school seniors, ''even high achievers,'' would do well to select a black college.

''Our young people are not shortchanged on these campuses,'' she maintained. The specific college depends on the student, she said, noting that:

* Some 18-year-olds are not ready for the ''struggle of living away from home for the first time. They need the cuddling of a friendly extended family that is the black campus.''

* Certain high school graduates, although teen-agers, can ''make it anywhere.'' They can easily handle any major college curriculum, but they may well need to mature ''socially'' at a black college. ''At Hampton I met friends who will last a lifetime. And I became a person - participating as part of the college community, being elected campus queen, graduating with honors.''

* Not all black colleges are the same. Students ''would be wise to select the college that suits their ambitions, their social aspirations, and their pocketbooks.''

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