Pride and paradox
Black colleges connect students to a past rich with civil rights activism. But their traditional mission has become diluted in an integrated world.
ATLANTA — When the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in admissions last week, few campuses welcomed the decision more warmly than a cluster of African-American colleges here.
These six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long been the civil rights movement's most fertile breeding ground. It's where W.E.B. DuBois taught and Martin Luther King Jr. went to school, as did a cadre of organizers working to defeat segregation.
Ironically, these colleges might have benefited from a rollback of affirmative action. Less opportunity on predominantly white campuses could have boosted applications at these schools, some of which are struggling financially and all of which are redefining their role in an integrated educational system.
Founded after the Civil War, black colleges awarded most of the degrees earned by African-Americans. Integration in the 1960s provided new educational opportunities, but the resulting migration to predominantly white schools weakened many black colleges. They lost students, faculty, and even their best athletes.
Not all 103 of the nation's HBCUs are struggling. Atlanta's all-male Morehouse and all-women's Spelman are flourishing, bolstered by endowments. But the current recession has deepened financial problems at many chronically underfunded public black colleges and private schools, such as Atlanta's Morris Brown College.
Today, nothing better showcases HBCUs' diverging fortunes than the short walk here between Spelman and Morris Brown's campuses. Both feature grassy quads full of brick academic buildings and views of Atlanta's skyscrapers a couple miles away.
But on Spelman's 34-acre campus, swarms of construction crews finish the exterior of a new $20 million building endowed by Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille. Nearby, a modern science center was recently renovated, and high-speed Internet access will soon be added to dorms.
Up the road at Morris Brown, concrete pathways are cracked and paint peels from the empty student center. The school lost its accreditation in April due to financial irregularities - a situation that disqualified students from federal financial aid and drove many underclassmen away.
From its beginnings in the basement of a famed Atlanta African Methodist Episcopal church in 1881, the school was long known for accepting those who didn't have the credentials or money to go elsewhere.
Today, Morris Brown owes the US Department of Education more than $5 million in improperly obtained financial aid on top of a debt that reached $27 million. The school's leaders are now scrambling to raise enough money to reopen in the fall.
Morris Brown may be an extreme example, but it is far from the only HBCU suffering financially today. As many as 15 percent are on probation with accreditation agencies. Much of their problems are beyond the schools' control, observers say.
African-American underemployment has meant that HBCUs couldn't build safety nets from alumni-funded endowments. Instead, the colleges rely heavily on student tuition payments, corporate donations, government aid, and foundation grants - all of which dry up during recessions.
In recent years the most elite black colleges have started aggressively tapping alumni for donations. Spelman's endowment now stands at $215 million. In fact, a quarter of HBCU presidents have retired in the last three years, most of whom cited the constant strain of fundraising as a reason to leave early.
Spelman's new president, Beverly Tatum, jumped from Mt. Holyoke, an all-women's school with an endowment of $350 million. The true gap between the two schools' endowments is much larger, Ms. Tatum says, because Spelman must support a needier student body, 87 percent of whom receive financial aid.
The problem is even more acute for public HBCUs and smaller church-supported schools, such as Morris Brown, which can't raise a fraction of that money. Nor are state legislatures stepping in to make up the difference, says Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina.
"We seem to be developing a cottage industry of dumping on the have-nots," Congressman Clyburn said in a telephone interview. "The research dollars are not going to these institutions and the maintenance efforts are not being put forth."
But no matter their financial resources, Atlanta's black colleges say they share the same mission: educating African-American students in a uniquely supportive environment. "HBCUs continue to provide this sense of academic community that is comfortable and safe for a certain segment of American society that hasn't been safe in all majority environments," says Juan McGruder, a professor of education at Clark Atlanta University.
HBCUs are the rare place in American higher education where a white visitor stands out. Almost everyone on campus - from students to campus police officers - is African-American. The faculty, while largely black, is also comprised of other races.
These schools are small - all six could fit in a Big 10 campus with plenty of room to spare, and yet you can walk for hours and not see any non-African-Americans, with the exception of construction workers.
That environment appeals to both students who grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods and those who attended mostly white schools. Take Charles Warner, who came to Morehouse from New Haven, Conn. "Society is threatened by black men," Mr. Warner says. "They have greater expectations for us to fail and be delinquent. Here, we have a sense of pride, being part of a continuous stream of achievement."
Reminders of that rich heritage are everywhere. At Morehouse, for example, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside a chapel that also bears his name. In March 1960, King joined the first student-organized demonstration in Atlanta.
The Atlanta University Center's student civil rights organization, the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, led three years of nonviolent protests that helped integrate the city's movie theaters, lunch counters, and parks, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Those protests helped create an environment in which black applicants can apply to any college they want. And yet many HBCU students say there's no school they'd rather attend.
Celeste Burrell, for example, came to Spelman from Chattanooga, Tenn., where she was one of 10 African-American students in her high school graduating class. She applied to a black college because she thought something was missing in her childhood. "It's totally a life-altering experience," Ms. Burrell says. "I never knew there were so many educated African-Americans. I feel like I fit in better."
Even parents who attended predominantly white colleges a generation ago encourage their children to consider HBCUs. It's a choice that Spelman College President Beverly Tatum knows well: Her teenage son is about to apply to college himself.
"As a parent of a young African-American student, I ask 'What is the institutional commitment to creating an inclusive environment?' " says Dr. Tatum, who graduated from Wesleyan University and the University of Michigan - the center of last week's Supreme Court affirmative action decision.
"I want him to be celebrated as a young African-American with high academic achievements," she says.
Leaving the all-black college setting can be jarring for some students, says Clark Atlanta junior Sophia Wilson. She says it will be easier for her having attended a mostly white high school in New Jersey than for classmates who went to all black high schools and then enrolled at HBCUs.
"It can be a culture shock never having seen anything else," Ms. Wilson says.
Tatum says the smaller classes and more accessible faculty ensure that students stay in school and develop the confidence they need to thrive in a white-dominated world.
Graduation statistics suggest black colleges succeed in that mission of educating 270,000 students each year. While they enroll 16 percent of African-American college students, HBCU students are more likely to graduate than peers at predominantly white institutions.
As a result, a quarter of black students receiving bachelor's degrees earn them at HBCUs, says William Harvey, director of the American Council on Education's Office of Minorities in Higher Education. Xavier University in New Orleans produces more African-American medical students than any other school in the country, with Spelman close behind.
"The nation wouldn't be the same without the large number of African-American leaders HBCUs produce," says William Bryant, head of the president's commission on the future of HBCUs in Washington.
Last year, President Bush proposed a 5 percent increase in federal funding for HBCUs. At the same time, his administration submitted a legal brief opposing affirmative action, a decision criticized by HBCU faculty as detrimental to the African-American community.
Black college officials did not expect their schools would benefit from a rollback in affirmative action had the Supreme Court ruled against it last week. After all, enrollment at HBCUs didn't rise in the 1990s after the University of California curtailed affirmative action there, Spelman admissions director Theodora Riley says. Students simply shifted from Berkeley or Los Angeles to other campuses in the system.
Even if applications had increased, many HBCUs lack the resources to enroll more students, according to Professor McGruder. "You need to hire more faculty, build more buildings - it taxes the infrastructure, and that could lead to more financial instability."
To survive, McGruder says black colleges must learn to collaborate more, whether that means joint purchasing or even becoming a college within a larger state university.
Atlanta's HBCUs can serve as a model for such collaboration, McGruder says. Three of the schools - Atlanta, Spelman, and Morehouse first formed the Atlanta University Center in 1929. The AUC currently has six member schools that share a research library, career services, and even an orchestra.
In the meantime, the gap between what elite HBCUs and poorer ones can afford to do widens. Some HBCUs have even turned to white students as a way to stabilize enrollment. Ten schools are now more than 20 percent white. Morehouse also envisions increasing the number of non-African-Americans (particularly Latinos) on campus, from the current 6 percent of the student body, Massey says.
Macalester College economics researcher Humphrey Doermann predicts most HBCUs will survive and prosper, even in a society that may become more integrated.
As with women's colleges that survived the admission of women to predominantly male schools, black colleges will still be an appealing option for many African American students, says Dr. Doermann, coauthor of "Spend and Prosper: Black Private Colleges and Their Students." "There will always be a niche for good colleges that have a mission," he says. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Dr. Doermann's book.]
W.E.B. Du Bois
Author, historian, sociologist, NAACP cofounder
Fisk University (1888)
Zora Neal Hurston
Howard University (1923 to 1924)
Hildrus A. Poindexter
Lincoln University (1924)
Lincoln University (1929)
Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
Howard University (1953)
First African-American US Supreme Court Justice
Lincoln University (1930)
Howard Law School (1933)
Martin Luther King Jr.
Author, pastor, civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner
Morehouse College (1948)
NAACP field secretary, freedom rider killed in 1963
Alcorn College (1952)
NY Mets outfielder and 1969 World Series MVP
Morehouse College (1956)
L. Douglas WIlder
First African-American governor (of Virginia)
Virginia Union University (1951)
Howard Law School (1959)
Dancer, director, actress
Howard University (1971)
Samuel L. Jackson
Actor, Academy Award nominee
Morehouse College (1972)
Shelton "Spike" Lee
Morehouse College (1979)