If you walk across the campus of Howard University, there's a sense among students that something special is happening. Some call it a rejuvenation. Others see it as proof-positive that black colleges and universities are again a "hot" choice among African-American students.
At Howard, north of downtown Washington, much of the renewed interest can be traced to H. Patrick Swygert, a graduate of the college and the law school, who was named president of the university two years ago.
Dr. Swygert immediately set out on a mission to attract top students to the campus. He continued streamlining Howard's budget, cutting the number of employees by about one-third. He persuaded Congress to reinstate its annual $200 million subsidy - 40 percent of the operating budget - which the House Budget Committee had voted to cut.
Swygert also drew up a strategic plan to improve buildings and services, install campus computer links, and bring in additional private money to help attract nationally known academics. His plan also calls for consolidating Howard's 16 schools into 11 by the fall, as well as substantially increasing donations from the university's 70,000 alumni.
"Pat's leadership was invaluable in creating this new sense of optimism at Howard," says William H. Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund. "The alumni feel good about the university and so do the students."
Trista Carter, a freshman from Minnesota, is the kind of student that Howard even recently failed to enroll. As the Ivy League and other prestigious colleges opened their doors wider, Howard and other historically black colleges saw many potential recruits enroll elsewhere. But with this major push by Swygert, Howard is once again attracting the nation's best black students.
"I think that a lot of students that had considered the Ivy Leagues visited those schools and didn't feel real comfortable, and then you come to Howard and everything feels so right," says Ms. Carter. "People want the black college experience and they know that Howard is comparable to Ivy League schools."
Howard, the only comprehensive black research university in the United States, enrolls about 11,000 students.
Professional degrees are conferred in dentistry, divinity, law, medicine, and pharmacy. It was founded in 1867, primarily to educate freed slaves. Along with Gallaudet University in Washington, it is one of only two federally chartered universities.
Perception is everything when it comes to creating a top pick and Swygert - the former president of the State University of New York at Albany - was well aware of this. His effort to improve recruiting appears to have paid off. Earlier this year he announced that Howard had attracted 79 National Achievement Scholars, more than any other college in the country. The National Merit Scholarship Corp. runs the program for outstanding black students parallel to its regular merit programs.
This year it named 850 scholars. Harvard University, which does not offer automatic scholarships to these students as Howard does, was second with 69.
"We really went after these students with the same intensity that some schools would appear to go after top athletes," says Swygert. "The National Achievement Scholars are going to be leaders and we want to make sure that a fair number of them continue to come here."
What's happening at Howard is not an aberration. Florida A&M in Tallahassee, and Spelman College and Morehouse College in Atlanta, all report an increase in applications. Overall, enrollment at black colleges and universities is at its highest point ever. A recent study produced by the College Fund/UNCF found that black enrollment at such schools increased by 21 percent between 1976 and 1994. The schools now award 28 percent of all bachelor's degrees to African-Americans.
This revitalization can be traced not only to efforts by educators like Swygert, but also to pragmatism. With costs soaring at many elite colleges, black colleges have kept their costs relatively low. Howard was ranked by Money Magazine this year as among the top 25 schools in the nation its annual "Best College Buy" issue.
Tuition at Howard runs about $8,700 per year compared with more than $21,000 at an Ivy League school like Columbia University in New York.
"Black students are now saying, 'I can get an excellent education at an extremely low-cost'," Mr. Gray explains. "What's more, I can learn in an environment where I'm nurtured, where I'm supported, where it's not hostile, and where faculty look like me and believe in my abilities."
Perhaps that's why the large "Welcome Home" sign on campus has taken on a deep meaning for so many students.
"From the minute that you walk on campus during freshman orientation, you feel like you finally got to the right place," says graduate student John Cash, who also attended Howard as an undergraduate.
Indeed, many students say that a major selling point is the promise that once on campus, they will be judged on merit rather than their skin color.
Black colleges have become so sought after that in many cases the competition for students is not between Howard and Harvard, but Howard and Morehouse.
"As a result, we're all recruiting with greater intensity," says Swygert. "A number of students who really do have lots of options are opting for some of the historically black schools."
"The success of Howard and other historically black schools is impressive, and considerable progress has been made in educating African-Americans," says Gray.
"But many hurdles remain. There are lots of people who want to go to these colleges but can't."