Historically Black Colleges' Special Niche

MAY 26, 1990: "That's when my honeymoon came to a screeching halt," says Julius Becton.

Just five months earlier the retired Army general had become president of Prairie View A&M University, one of 104 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States.

"We were spending upwards of $3 million over a four- or five-year period from our dormitory account, from our dining account, to prop up football," General Becton recalls. "No sport was carrying its weight."

So the new president canceled all sports except track and cross country, outraging students and alumni. But Becton's message was clear: Education is Prairie View's first priority.

Schools like Prairie View offer an opportunity for higher education to many African-Americans. One in six of the 1.2 million black students who went to college in the US in 1990 attended a predominately black institution. (There are 117 such schools, 104 HBCUs and another 13 founded after 1964).

But HBCUs were responsible for a much higher ratio - one in four - of degrees awarded to African-Americans. Among all US institutions, Prairie View's rank in graduating blacks is third in engineering and computer science, fourth in engineering science and math, and fifth in life sciences.

"We pride ourselves on being able to produce productive students able to turn into productive leaders," Becton says of HBCUs. "We take that role seriously."

Prairie View graduates include Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, Texas Congressman Craig Washington, and Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, who was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's deputy commander in the Persian Gulf. Becton, who once directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also an alumnus.

Located 45 miles northwest of Houston, Prairie View was established in the state constitution of 1876 as the "Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth," making it the state's second-oldest institution for higher education.

Today, anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent can enroll, regardless of SAT scores. About 85 percent of Prairie View's 6,000 students are African-American.

Nine out of 10 students receive some financial aid at Prairie View, where tuition, room, and board cost about $5,000 a year. A third of the students on aid come from families that earn less than $8,000 a year.

"The HBCUs have been for a very long time affording an opportunity for youngsters to get an education that they would not ordinarily get," Becton says.

That's why Becton denounces plans afoot in Mississippi and Louisiana. Last June the United States Supreme Court ruled against Mississippi in a 17-year-old lawsuit charging the state with underfunding historically black schools. Mississippi officials announced that it would close two HBCUs and merge their operations into the mainstream higher-education system. Louisiana intends to follow suit.

That was not the outcome black educators had hoped for. Though born of segregation, state-run HBCUs are valued by African-Americans as racism-free oases nurturing self-esteem and advancement.

Becton says that the continuing legacy of racism would make many blacks reluctant to attend traditionally white institutions. "If they were to close [the Mississippi HBCUs] - and it's not a done deal yet - would those youngsters go elsewhere? The answer is no," he insists. Mississippi's plans are being reviewed by a federal judge and the federal Civil Rights Commission.

State-run HBCUs attract more than the poor and academically underprepared. "I've got more opportunity here," says student-body president Tiwana Flagg, who graduated from a private, predominately white high school in Jacksonville, Fla.

Becton makes it clear that Prairie View is not a diploma mill for African-Americans. "We have some youngsters here who really just want to party. They spend their time doing that. They're not going to pass. It's as simple as that," he says.

Becton's own grandson found that out. After two consecutive semesters of below-average grades, the school required him to sit out a semester. "He's back in school now," Becton says. "I hope he's doing a better job."

Becton's main wish now is to see athletics recover. He restored all sports after three months except football, and that after a year. But the school still has no money for athletic scholarships.

Prairie View graduates 45 to 65 percent of its athletes. "We'll put that record up against any school, not just in the state but in the country," Becton says, noting that as few as 8 to 10 percent of athletes graduate at some schools.

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