BLACK colleges were founded to educate African-Americans when they were prohibited from going to other public institutions in the United States. Today, there are 106 historically black colleges, including public and private institutions. Questions about the role of these schools have taken on significance since the court-ordered desegregation of the US higher education system in 1972.
Many of these colleges have been struggling financially and several have had to close their doors, including Bishop College in Dallas, Daniel Payne College in Birmingham, Ala., Friendship College in Rock Hill, S.C., Mississippi Industrial College in Holly Springs, Miss., and Lynchburg College in Lychburg, Va.
Meanwhile, some of the more elite private black colleges are attracting more black students because tuition is often a bargain when compared with a similar mainstream school.
Fund-raising efforts have increased awareness of some of these schools. Bill and Camille Cosby generated widespread publicity in 1988 when they gave $20 million to Spelman College, a black women's college in Atlanta.
Yet many educators are questioning the role of black colleges.
``A university belongs to all of the people,'' says Charles V. Willie, a professor of education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., who is black. ``And there is no reason why any university ought to exclude anyone. The capacity for a school to impart information to students is based upon it having a diversified population.''
Dr. Willie points out that one-third of the freshman class at Harvard University this year is made up of minorities; black students make up 8.1 percent of the class. The entering class at the University of California, Berkeley, is two-thirds minority students; 11 percent of the class is black. Berkeley turned down 2,500 white and Asian students with straight-A averages to attain that level of ethnic diversity, according to Willie.
``It's educationally effective to have a diversified student body,'' argues Willie, ``and any school that does not is courting disaster if it expects to provide a good learning environment.''
Some African-Americans, however, view black colleges as more supportive and nurturing of their needs.
``I do understand the ambivalence,'' says Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education. ``If all your life you and your parents and your parents' parents went to these schools that were black and now they are becoming white, I can appreciate some of the concerns and fears of the alums,'' he says. ``The fact of the matter is that desegregation makes all that an anachronism really.''
Progressive integration may call for a renewed vision of how to educate minorities. ``The emphasis should be not merely on the salt-and-pepper approach - getting whites on black campuses and blacks on white campuses,'' says Samuel L. Myers, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, ``but rather increasing the total flow of educated minorities in order that they can integrate with the broader society.''