Black Colleges Shift to Racial Mix
Historically black schools encourage white student enrollment, making some alumni uneasy. INTEGRATED EDUCATION
JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — ANNETTE JONES wanted to go to a predominantly black, small college away from home. She chose Lincoln University, a historically black college founded here in 1866 by black soldiers returning from the Civil War. Ms. Jones attended the school for two years before she found out that a majority of its students are not black. Of the 3,063 students at Lincoln University today, only 27 percent are black. White student enrollment makes up 69 percent of the student body. Other ethnic groups represent 4 percent.
``I read out of a book that it [Lincoln] was predominantly black and when I came here I was living on-campus in a dorm,'' says Jones. ``Mostly black students were there and therefore I didn't see many whites....''
A handful of historically black colleges in the United States have seen a gradual, steady increase in the number of white students enrolling in their schools.
``In publicly supported black colleges there has been a trend of more white students enrolling,'' says Charles V. Willie, professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. ``White enrollment is up 15 to 25 percent in some of these schools.''
``Geographic and community factors have been the strongest force in integrating the institutions,'' says Samuel L. Myers, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, the umbrella organization for predominantly black colleges.
The most dramatic effect has been at colleges in states where the black population is small. Schools in Southern states, which have larger black populations, have maintained a majority of black students.
After court-ordered desegregation of higher education in 1972, black students had more choices. Black colleges now have to compete for excellent students, who are often offered scholarships and other incentives to attend mainstream, predominantly white universities.
A 1989 study by the American Council on Education, a research organization in Washington, documents an increase in minority presence among college populations. The enrollment of black men, however, has continued a decade-long decline. While total college enrollment grew from 11 million in 1976 to 12.5 million in 1986, black male enrollment fell from 470,00 to 436,000.
As the monopoly on the black student market began to crumble and tuition charges skyrocketed, black colleges in predominantly white areas realized that they could increase their enrollment by attracting white students from the community. This phenomenon has occurred over the past 15 to 20 years, according to Dr. Myers. ``We have about 10 to 12 percent white students as a whole at the historically black colleges now,'' he says.
Today, five black colleges have more than 50 percent white enrollment: Kentucky State University in Frankfurt, Ky.; Bluefield State College in Bluefield, Va.; Langston University in Langston, Okla.; and West Virginia State College in Institute, W. Va.
Eight or nine other traditionally black colleges are approaching predominantly white status, according to Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education.
A visitor to the Lincoln University campus could easily miss that the school has a predominantly white enrollment. Black students congregate around the common area between classes and banter back and forth while white students discreetly pass from parking lots to classrooms and then directly back to their cars.
A snack bar called the ``Blue Room'' suggests a clear-cut division between the white and black students. During the lunch rush, black students congregate on one side of the room next to the juke box and carry on lively conversations and greetings. On the other side of the room up against the windows, white students are having more subdued conversations or reading from school books.
Is there an imaginary line dividing the room into white and black sections? ``It's a real line,'' responds one white student, who is sitting with a group of about six others. Over on the other side of the room, black senior Rodney Holmes says: ``I sit wherever.''
Jemal Dents, freshman class president, provides some perspective. ``Most of the blacks live on campus so they're in the `Blue Room' before anyone else is. And they're already sitting on the side with the booths. When the commuter students come in, it's usually around lunch time so the only seats that are available are over by the window because no one likes sitting over there. The juke box is on the other side of the room.''
More than half of the college's students are commuters. Of the 441 students living on campus in the fall of 1989, only 15 were white. The issue of commuter-student needs versus resident-student needs seems to divide the campus more than racial issues.
Wendell Rayburn, president of Lincoln University, speaks of the ``natural grouping of resident students as opposed to commuter students.'' You will find this on any campus, he says. ``It just happens here that it shows up very well in terms of black and white.''
Many of the white students at Lincoln University are considered nontraditional students - older students who often hold jobs or have family responsibilities.
``Originally I came to Lincoln because it was convenient,'' says journalism major Carmen Voegeli. ``I missed school and I just came back to get involved again,'' comments this white commuter student and mother.
``If you are working, if you have a family at home, if you are above the normal age, say 20 or so, your interests in social activities aren't the same,'' says Ms. Voegeli. ``Can you imagine me at a rap concert?'' she asks.
``I know I bring skills and training and experiences to the college that very few other students might have had,'' says Voegeli. ``And it's the same on the other side of the coin. It makes for really good one-on-one discussions in class, different perspectives meshing together.''
``I think it's really good for a school to be culturally mixed,'' says Mr. Dents. ``That's one way to gain an understanding of each other. A lot of problems are basically set on the fact that we don't understand each other.''
President Rayburn, a cultured, confident man who operates with the ease of experience, has brought Lincoln University back from the brink of bankruptcy in his two-year tenure. He arrived to find a fiscal disaster and a dramatically declining enrollment. The school is now on solid financial ground and enrollment has grown faster than any other public institution in the state for the past two years, according to Dan Diedriech, director of university relations.
``If we believe in the principles of democracy,'' says Rayburn, ``I think we must go a step further than simply having students able to coexist in the classroom setting. I want to see democracy lived at Lincoln University. Until all of our students feel totally and completely a part of this institution, I feel I will not have completed my job.''
Some alumni have voiced concern over the influx of white students to their alma mater.
``There are tensions between many of the alumni of these institutions who feel that the black heritage of the schools is being sabotaged,'' says Myers. ``Black students may feel that they are being pushed out.''
Yet the original mission of Lincoln University is by no means lost. ``The purposes that existed when Lincoln was founded by those black soldiers still exist,'' says Donald Babcock, an associate professor of physics who joined the faculty in 1962. ``There is a need for quality education for the poorly prepared, and I think we do a lot of that.''
School administrators would like more blacks to enroll in the college. ``Given the demographics of our location, I think we still can do a little better in attracting more black students than we have,'' says Rayburn. ``I would like to see about 30 percent.''
He points to an increase in the number of black students enrolling over the past two years - although there is no increase in the percentage of blacks.
``Although we are predominantly white, we still have that support system where black students who need nurturing can get that nurturing - and they do,'' says Rayburn.
``There is no need to panic if an institution is beginning to change,'' he says. ``You recognize the change that is taking place; you take advantage of that change. I think you build on that. I think we're going to need more institutions like Lincoln.''