''When I ask you how you're doing, don't tell me about a 1.9 grade point average (on a 4.0 scale). I want to hear of nothing less than 2.6. And I would shout and rejoice if you told me about your 3.9 average.''
Chancellor Edward B. Fort issues that kind of challenge to the 5,960 students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T) here in Greensboro - whether he's addressing a formal audience or just chatting with a student on campus.
Farther south, at tiny Paine College (700 students) in Augusta, Ga., Sasha Callender, a student from New York, tells her story: ''My life is turned around because of Paine College,'' says the 25-year-old senior, who ''wasted three years of my life partying and fooling around.'' At Paine Miss Callender dropped her life as a Big Apple ''swinger'' to become an honors student, president of the student government in her junior year, an actress-director, and a summer missionary (fund-raiser) for the United Methodist Church Black College Fund.
North Carolina's A&T and Georgia's Paine are among America's 103 historically black colleges - schools established specifically to educate blacks. Today they are often challenged to prove they still have a place in an education system that no longer sanctions segregation.
Black schools are also struggling to shed the stigma of inferiority they acquired during the years of ''separate but equal'' schooling.
The credibility of black colleges was bolstered, however, in a report (''Participation of Recent Black College Graduates in the Labor Market and in Graduate Education,'' by Joan C. Baratz and Myra Ficklen) published in May 1983 by the Educational Policy Research Institute. The report concludes that a degree from a black college ''is not a deterrent to employment opportunities. The data in this study clearly support the role of black colleges and universities in enhancing opportunities for black Americans.''
In spite of their achievements, however, nearly all black colleges are short of money in all categories - budgets, endowments, capital funds, scholarships, and student loans. The state-supported black colleges face an added dilemma - how to register more white students. In 19 states such enrollment is mandated by a federal court consent decree (Adams v. Bell, filed originally in 1972 as Adams v. Richardson), which requires those states to equalize the quality of their black and white campuses and to bring more courses that can serve all students to the black campuses.
Of the estimated 1.1 million black students attending the nation's colleges, only 20 percent are enrolled in black colleges. These colleges award 40 percent of the undergraduate degrees earned by blacks, however. Their basic competition comes, not from mainstream universities and colleges, but from two-year colleges and new urban institutions such as the University of the District of Columbia.
Over the last decade the number of traditionally black colleges has dropped from 117 to 103, 82 of which are fully accredited. Several schools have closed during the past three decades because of a lack of money, of facilities, or of the kind of curriculum needed to attract students. Others have merged. Still others have become predominantly white.
The two black state colleges in West Virginia, West Virginia State and Bluefield State, now have more white students than blacks.
Fisk University in Nashville is in severe trouble. Its enrollment, endowment, and general support have dropped precipitously. Its president, Walter Leonard, has resigned. A nationwide effort, headed by Dr. James Cheek, president of Howard University, has been mounted to save it.
Cheyney State University near Philadelphia, founded in 1839, is America's oldest black college. Howard University in Washington, D.C., with more than 12, 000 students, is the largest and also ranks among the nation's top schools. Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington, is probably the best known, particularly for its research in agriculture, its veterinary school, and its work in training pilots. Hampton Institute in Virginia, Washington's alma mater, is the richest in endowment. The Atlanta University complex, which includes four colleges and two graduate schools, is the nation's top cluster of black schools.
Of the accredited schools that survive, 47 are private. The other 35 are state-supported, and these account for the vast majority - 75 percent, in fact - of the current enrollment in black colleges.
Overall, these colleges are in a holding action, trying to maintain their enrollments, their prestige, and balanced budgets, says Dr. Samuel L. Myers, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), the one organization that speaks for all black colleges. ''We are at the crossroads,'' he says. ''If the federal government does not reduce the federal program for student aid and student loans, our colleges will hold their own.''
Chancellor Fort of A&T and Sasha Callender of Paine represent key forces in ensuring the future of black colleges. A&T, a state-supported school, offers new programs that may attract more white students, and its top administrator demands quality from both the faculty and the student body. Paine, a private, church-supported school, offers special attention and incentives to any eager student seeking the kind of education and sense of self-worth that a black campus can offer.
Like most black colleges, A&T and Paine see the federal government as the basic source of fiscal help, in the form of direct aid, loan money for students, research grants to faculty, and emergency funds for facilities.
Black colleges will survive, says Dr. Myers, because President Reagan ''is interested in them.'' The federal government has increased the segment of grants and research funds earmarked for them from $544.8 million in 1981 (under the Carter administration) to $550 million in 1982 and then $606.2 million in 1983, he says.
First of two articles. Tomorrow: What black colleges are doing to ensure their survival.