The growing pressure on private colleges of dwindling enrollment, too little money, and stricter outside standards is especially straining black schools. Three small black colleges in the South face losing their accreditation this spring for reasons of financial instability.
Unless they win appeals of their cases, Knoxville College and Morristown College in Tennessee and Bishop College in Texas will lose their accreditation, a move the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has not taken in 40 years.
This loss would make it very difficult for the colleges to attract either the students or funds they need to survive.
Enrollment at the nation's 110 black colleges began dropping around 1978. Between 1980 and 1984, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, it fell by more than 16 percent. The pool of black youths will continue to shrink until the early 1990s, says SREB statistician Joe Marks.
Black colleges, which have always been financially poorer than most colleges, are squeezed between the shrinking pool of black college students and competition for them from mostly white colleges.
In the early 1960s, all but a small fraction of black collegians attended predominantly black institutions. Integration has stood that proportion on its head, and now only a third attend black schools.
In the past decade, however, something less expected happened. While the share of blacks who graduated from high school grew, fewer of these high-school graduates were going on to college.
One reason may be academic preparation. The heyday of black college enrollment in the mid-1970s, says Mr. Marks, found many black students unprepared for college work. ``The open door turned out to be a revolving door,'' he says.
A more obvious reason is that fewer black students can afford college. Nine of 10 students at black colleges require financial aid. Three quarters qualify for Pell grants for low-income families. Yet the maximum Pell grants today would need to be 50 percent higher than they are in order to have the purchasing power of the 1974 grants.
Black colleges, says Virgil Ecton of the United Negro College Fund, ``draw more young men and women than we can support. ... But they can't pay their way.''
As Mr. Ecton points out, black colleges have survived economic depressions and enrollment plunges before, as most of them date back a century.
At least part of the problem for the three schools facing revocation of their charters is that standards are being tightened. When the accreditation decision was made last month, two other colleges were put on public probation and 23 more schools were put on private, that is secret, probation. Four of the schools on probation are predominantly black colleges.
Putting so many schools on notice ``is highly unusual,'' points out James Rogers, chairman of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools commission on colleges. ``We have tightened up,'' he says, adding, ``At some point you have to make the hard decisions if accreditation is going to mean anything.''
Dr. Rogers acknowledges that stricter standards may cost the South some schools, but his agency's obligation to the public to accredit a college as a stable institution is higher than aiding any single institution. In the case of Knoxville College, he notes, the association has worked with the school five years while it has tried to achieve stability.
In most cases, he says, probation from the accrediting board prompts a college into the strong action it takes to restore its good standing.
Black colleges are no exception. Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., was on the brink of insolvency in recent years, but new leadership and aggressive fund raising brought it back.
In Alabama, the alumni of the state's seven black colleges are banding together on a pilot project in Birmingham to recruit black students to college, especially black colleges, and to help them prepare.
The group has opened a speaker's bureau with 10 eminent graduates from each school to provide role models for black students, to improve the image of black institutions, and to encourage students to take the right courses.
Black colleges are important, not just for students who are not academically ready or socially comfortable in predominantly white colleges, but also to conserve black heritage and identity, says Alease Sims, coordinator of the Alabama project, and president of the Alabama A&M University alumni council.
``A people without institutions will soon vanish,'' she observes. ``Black colleges and churches are very important.''
A study last year for the Southern Education Foundation found that black students at black colleges were ``dramatically'' higher satisfied with college life than black students at predominantly white colleges. It also found higher graduation rates, better grades, and better relations with faculty for black students at black colleges.