They have been at the heart of black learning for more than 100 years. Yet today, many of the small, private minority colleges (largely in the South) are facing troubles. Some, observers say, are hanging on ``the ragged edge'' and may have to close down.
Traditionally these colleges -- many founded by church denominations during Reconstruction -- have provided ``a safe cultural harbor for blacks,'' as one college official put it, and a low-cost education.
Overt prejudice used to be the main problem besetting black colleges. But with the changes in the social and economic landscape since the 1960s, the predominantly black colleges today face a more complex set of problems: cultural mainstreaming (blacks now attend a wider variety of schools); high costs for energy, salaries, and insurance; and image problems the perception that they provide a lower quality of education.
The most pressing of these problems, says Caspa Harris, business officer and legal consultant to Howard University in Washington, ``is a five-letter word -- money.''
A few black colleges -- those blessed with large endowments -- are flourishing. Many more are strapped.
The minority colleges with the more publicized deficits and accreditation problems this year include Fisk University (Nashville), Bishop College (Dallas), and Knoxville College.
That Fisk -- the nation's preeminent black college -- has financial and enrollment difficulties comes as a surprise to many blacks. ``It's been a flagship college for years,'' says M. J. Williams of the National Association of College Business Officers.
``We weren't minding the store,'' says Fisk president Henry Ponder, adding that in the 1960s there was an increasing market, with ``students coming to us.'' The market has changed, however, and Fisk ``didn't adjust,'' he says.
Blacks have not experienced the demographic decline that whites have, the so-called ``baby bust.'' Still, black enrollment at colleges is down -- a smaller proportion of black youths are applying. Charles Teamer of Dillard University in New Orleans attributes this to ``black families placing less emphasis on college. It's not the same dream it was.''
The biggest drain from black schools, however, is due to active minority recruitment from larger institutions. Cordell Wynn, president of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., says of blacks: ``Every college is trying to get one'' -- often to fill federal quotas. This applies to black college faculty as well.
Big schools tend to attract the best students. ``They skim the top,'' says Mr. Wynn. Pat Flanagan of Spelman College in Atlanta says, ``They take our academic `stars' '' -- those most-talented students Mr. Flanagan and his colleagues say are important to the morale, tenor, and vitality of their colleges. Experts agree that some black students go to bigger schools because they feel they will get a better education; some go for the more diverse programs and facilities.
To counter this trend, such schools as Dillard are starting comprehensive scholarship programs to woo the best. But, says Mr. Teamer, ``That's expensive.''
The big push among minority colleges is now in marketing. Fisk is getting ``much more aggressive'' in its marketing approach, Dr. Ponder says.
One way to do this, says Teamer, is point out the special care and attention a student will receive at a smaller school. But again, a lower student-faculty ratio is expensive, he says. The move to include high-tech programs in a liberal arts school is also expensive. Such schools as Stillman have made ``unique cooperative arrangements'' with the University of Alabama for shared technical programs and equipment.
Another blow, says Mr. Harris at Howard, is that many colleges are finding their best faculty members slipping away. It is well understood that most black colleges retain faculty with extremely high levels of dedication, as various college officials put it. But, as Williams says, ``Big schools can afford to pay a better salary to black faculty.'' Bright faculty in small-town schools often want the cultural life in Atlanta or New Orleans, says Wynn. And larger schools have resources small colleges cannot
Wynn also sees impending faculty shortages in certain fields. ``We have trouble getting young blacks to teach business. Corporations lure them off to the big jobs,'' he says. The same is true in chemistry, physics, and math.
Maintaining the physical plant also drains college resources. It's ``the snowball effect,'' Harris says. ``The energy crisis nearly wiped them [black colleges] out,'' he says, ``and they've never really recovered from it.'' Administrators report that older buildings are often in disrepair. Faced with the high cost of restoration, the general attitude is to ``make do'' and ``patch things up.''
Despite difficulties, say black college officials, it is important that the basic mission of their schools be preserved. College officials say that those with laissez faire voices, saying to ``let the market run its course,'' do not see the purpose their schools still serve -- providing a primary means of education for blacks -- according to officials at black colleges. A ``great majority'' of black college students do not qualify academically for other schools, college officials say.
The relatively low cost is also important, these officials say, but even more important is the social aspect. ``A lot of our kids are still intimidated by big, predominantly white schools,'' says Teamer, adding, ``Many blacks are more productive in an atmosphere they feel closer to culturally.''
The best black colleges, says Allan Kirschner of the United Negro College Fund, are as competent as many good white schools and better than many poor ones.
Mr. Kirschner also says of the weaker black schools that ``they are performing some of the most critical work in black education. They take students in rural areas that wouldn't normally go to school.''
According to Mr. Williams, ``Many black schools are willing to take problems -- bring kids along a little more slowly than would other institutions; give remedial work.''
College officials point to successful alumni in all professional fields, as well as graduate students at such schools as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.
``There's no longer a doubt we can make it,'' Dr. Samuel Proctor told the Monitor. Dr. Proctor holds the Martin Luther King Jr. chair of education at Rutgers and is a major voice for black higher education.
``With enough education and self-esteem,'' he says, ``we have proven we can.''
Crucial to a comeback, says Mr. Harris, is for these schools to learn modern money-management techniques. Williams, a board member of several black colleges, including one that has come back from near-bankruptcy, concurs: ``The key to a turn around is good management -- hiring excellent administrators.''