Besieged by harsh economic realities and critics who say their time has passed, historically black colleges face an uncertain future. But they virtually created the African-American middle class, and they still know how to motivate students to succeed.
By BILL MAXWELL
Published September 21, 2003
[Times photo: Jennifer Sens]
Carla Bell, center, and other music majors at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach participate in an audio production class at the historically black college. Go to photo gallery
English professor Lucinda Coulter stood in front of a freshmen composition class at historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., lecturing on the essay of comparison and contrast. She was using Mark Twain's essay, "Two Views of the River," to illustrate the use of concrete detail.
It wasn't going well. The concrete detail she noticed most among her students was that of their eyes, glazing over. "I never wait long when that happens," she said recently.
Enough Twain: Coulter turned the class on a dime, taking an exemplary student outline, putting it on the board, and encouraging the class to offer examples and details that could bring the outline to life as an essay. It worked.
"Those are the kind of days I love," Coulter said. "For the first time this semester, I finally knew that my noisy, slightly immature group of freshmen, all black, had begun to both cooperate as a college-level class and to think about a few of the basic principles of writing."
Coulter and her colleagues at Stillman, founded in 1876 by a Presbyterian clergyman, practice a highly responsive brand of education. They improvise in class when necessary and give their students many hours of individual attention. They believe that black students, many of whom lack wealth and political and social clout, many of whom have low SATs and ACTs, deserve a chance not only to attend college but to succeed at it. They believe that Stillman and other colleges of its kind - Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, in the educational lingo - are the students' lifeline into America's professional world.
Currently, 106 HBCUs remain. They are in 24 states, mostly in the South, and in the Virgin Islands. They are public and private, liberal arts and technological, four-year and two-year. Combined, they enroll more than 370,000 African-American students annually.
For most African-Americans, the practical value of HBCUs is an article of faith. Although only 18 percent of black students in the United States attend HBCUs, 23 percent of black students who receive degrees earn them from these institutions. They have produced the bulk of today's black middle class: 30 percent of blacks who hold doctorates, 35 percent of black lawyers, 50 percent of black engineers, 65 percent of black physicians.
Yet, despite their success and their cultural and social capital, many HBCUs face an uncertain future. The 18 percent of all African-American students attending HBCUs in 2003 represents the schools' smallest share of the black college market ever. Before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 85 percent of all blacks who attended college attended these schools.
Do these mostly black institutions have a legitimate role in a society that increasingly claims to value colorblindness? Will HBCUs remain a viable option for a new generation of African-American students?
After all, during the last two decades, 12 HBCUs closed, mainly because of declining enrollments, falling endowments, mismanagement and fierce competition from mainline campuses for talented African-American students. Currently, at least three campuses, their infrastructures falling apart, struggle to meet their payrolls. Quietly, diversity-seeking American businesses have stepped into the HBCU funding gap, but they have by no means closed it.
An American saga
The history of HBCUs is a real American saga. They were established as a direct result of racism.
Before the Civil War, few blacks were permitted to attend school, even in the North. The handful who did study did so informally, risking their safety and lives. The overwhelming majority of blacks lived in the South, and many Southern whites actively opposed education for blacks.
A few all-black elementary and training schools existed in the North, the best known of which was the Institute for Colored Youth established in the 1830s by a group of Philadelphia Quakers. Years later, it would elevate its academic offerings and become Cheyney University, the nation's first HBCU.
Higher education for former slaves and their offspring did not become a national reality until 1890 with passage of the second Morrill Land Grant Act, mandating that states accepting land grant aid must either open their campuses to both blacks and whites or allocate funds for segregated black institutions.
Sixteen all-black schools received land grant funds and opened their doors, some with packed classrooms on the first day. Gradually, many other black colleges were established. Starting operations in 1887, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee expanded its programs after receiving land grant money. Florida's other three HBCUs - Bethune-Cookman College (1904), Edward Waters College (1866) in Jacksonville, Florida Memorial College (1879) in Miami - are private and church-affilated.
Since the institutions' inception, a long list of influential alumni has affirmed their worth: Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and Jesse Jackson, to name a few. Until the 1960s, nearly all black public school teachers - then the most important figure in black society - were trained at historically black schools.
HBCUs are not a monolith. They range from the likes of small, cash-strapped Wiley College in Texas to those of the wealthy "Black Ivy League": Howard University, Hampton University, Spelman College, Fisk University, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University and Dillard University. One of the seven is often cited in U.S. News & World Report's annual issue touting the nation's best colleges.
Nonetheless, HBCUs as a group are increasingly challenged to justify their existence, as Julian B. Roebuck and Komanduri S. Murty point out in their book, Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Their Place in American Higher Education.
After all, argue conservative critics of HBCUs - such as black economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution - the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed segregated public education. And, since then, other legislation and affirmative action have granted blacks greater access to education at majority-white institutions.
The argument, as characterized by Roebuck and Murty, is that "in a society that is striving for racial integration, the further duplication of physical facilities, academic programs, and services with a racially segregated, two-tiered higher education system is counterproductive financially, philosophically, and pedagogically."
Sociologist Gerald A. Foster, author of the 2001 book, Is There a Conspiracy to Keep Black Colleges Open?, sees HBCUs as throwbacks: "At some point black colleges must relinquish the crutch of slavery and its harmful effects on black people and learn to embrace a standard of academic excellence that transcends race. If there is one basic criticism of far too many black colleges it is that their admission decisions are driven by the need for tuition and federal aid rather than seeking high-quality students who are ready to engage in serious study."
"These are your children'
Outside of black territory, HBCU presidents must constantly defend their institutions. Norman Francis has been president of Xavier University in New Orleans for the last 35 years. His tenure is the longest of any college president in the United States.
Speaking on National Public Radio, Francis said that, while there is currently "a great need for African-American youngsters and professionals in every walk of life," the number of Ph.D.s awarded to African-Americans has changed little in the last 25 years. And he said that of the top 12 institutions graduating African-Americans who get Ph.D.s, 10 are HBCUs.
"Now should it be that way? No," said Francis, noting that there are 3,600 colleges and universities in America and fewer than 90 four-year HBCUs. But "until this country recognizes that it has to put in more financial aid and assistance to African-American youngsters who can go to any college and university," he said, HBCUs will play a critical role.
James Wingate, president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Nashville, Tenn., said HBCUs have excelled with students who need a transition to college life. "Giving the underprepared student a chance to be nurtured, taught, coached, cajoled and encouraged ultimately to the point that they achieve and go on into the workforce and contribute to the gross national product - that's what it's really all about. It's not that other colleges can't do that. It's that HBCUs do it better."
Even on paper, the shared goals and mission of HBCUs reflect responsibility to the black community. After surveying dozens of catalogs of majority-white and HBCU schools, Roebuck and Murty conclude that the goals described in black college catalogs, unlike those of white schools, stress preparation for student leadership and service roles in the black community.
At Bethune-Cookman College, for example, students are expected to tutor and mentor black children in nearby low-income communities, and they are encouraged to "give back" to black communities after graduation. During every campus-wide assembly, students are reminded that they are role models.
But students do not become role models just because their presidents and professors say so. It takes self-discipline, as several HBCU presidents noted, painting an image of their schools much at odds with the "diploma mill" rap laid on historically black colleges by their critics.
"We discourage pessimism and flatly reject self-pity and excuses," said Cordell Wynn, past president at Stillman in Tuscaloosa. "We reconnect black kids with traditional values that have been lost today. We give them a nurturing, hopeful environment. Many young black people have a great thirst to learn, but they must have opportunities. They need to be around positive adults who believe in them, who see them as significant individuals. Caring is hope. We teach our students that we're in this struggle together, that we can do better together."
Even critics, such as conservative sociologist Christopher Jencks, who sees HBCUs as academic wastelands - acknowledge that the schools foster strong bonds between students, professors and other employees that is best described as a student-surrogate parent relationship.
Greg Carr, an Afro-American Studies professor at Howard University, commented on his relationship with his students: "It's closer here. The assumption is these aren't just students. These are your children."
Many professors often invite students to their homes for dinner and discussions. Faculty routinely attend student-sponsored and community events both on and off campus. The purpose is to let students know that their professors support their efforts and believe in them. For the same reason, many professors attend their students' churches.
Research indicates that the philosophy of friendly, personal and supportive involvement goes beyond social relations. It is credited for a teaching technique that is part formal and part casual, a technique that apparently succeeds with below-average students - especially males - who cannot meet admissions requirements at white schools.
Black institutions always have rejected certain teaching principles associated with the traditional university: that professors should demand respect for their achievements and position, that subject matter should be taught without considering student-faculty personal relations, that professors should not care if the students like them or not. Black professors at HBCUs, on the other hand, know that the impersonal approach will fail with many black adolescents, especially males, who expect African-American adults to be understanding and flexible.
Respect for the teacher is necessary, HBCU professors acknowledge, but if students like and respect their professors, the students will accomplish more.
On black campuses, Roebuck's and Murty's research shows, professors encourage spirited exchange of subject matter, ideas, beliefs and opinions during class discussions. Because remediation is a natural part of academic life at most HBCUs, professors let some students keep pace by retaking exams, completing take-home exams or giving classroom presentations.
The comments of Tyshell Travis, a Stillman College sophomore, typify the views of most HBCU students: "I want a lot of attention. If I need help in a course, I can get it personally from my professor. I feel at home. . . . The professors want you to succeed in their classes."
Because of many HBCUs' open admissions policies, administrators acknowledge they accept many students with low SAT and ACT scores. But they also enroll students with high scores who, for personal and family reasons, still choose to attend an HBCU. In fact, the schools of the Black Ivy League, along with others, such as Florida A&M, annually attract and enroll more black National Merit Scholars than elite traditional schools, such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
"I'd hire all of them'
The huge digital divide between HBCUs and mainline campuses worries HBCU leaders. A 2000 United Negro College Fund study showed that only one out of six students at HBCUs owned or had access to a personal computer, compared to one out of two white students on white campuses. Four out of 10 professors at HBCUs owned computers, compared to seven out of 10 at white institutions.
Alarmed by the findings, HBCU leaders met to find solutions to bridging the gap and helping HBCUs become competitive in the electronic workplace. UNCF President William Gray initiated his Technology Enhancement Capital Campaign to raise $80-million to provide access to computers to all students and professors at the private HBCUs.
The response was huge and continues to be so, surprising even Gray. In addition to foundations and individuals, companies such as IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft immediately contributed more than $80-million in cash, hardware, software, technical services and faculty development and training. Bill Gates alone donated more than $100-million in software, cash and technology. Many companies have adopted their regional HBCUs.
Although these technology partnerships have received good press, they are part of a longstanding, but rarely reported, alliance between HBCUs and businesses that value ethnic diversity.
About 15 years ago, a handful of major companies and organizations, including the U.S. military, acted when HBCUs asked them to form partnerships that would increase the schools' competitiveness while helping the firms diversify their workforces and boost profitability. The results have been remarkably successful.
Fortune 500 companies and others see the 30,000 annual graduates of the HBCUs as physical and intellectual capital.
"When you want to have a diverse workforce, where do you go?" asked Kelvin Mayner, a human resources representative for State Farm Insurance. "Campuses like Bethune-Cookman College, Florida A&M . . . and others. Those have been the places we go to help diversify our employee group. . . . It's critical in the insurance industry. A few years ago, we started what we call "emerging markets campaigns' where we wanted to tap into those markets that we historically haven't tapped into, that being the Asian, Hispanic and African-American markets."
Bethune-Cookman officials said nearly 75 companies have visited the campus this year to recruit, including ESPN, the Arts & Entertainment Network and the Walt Disney Co.
Knowing that their campuses are being courted by corporations, faculty and administrators acknowledge their focus on preparing students for the workplace.
About the quality of Bethune-Cookman's nursing graduates, for example, Barbara Hinebaugh, employment supervisor at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, said: "If they had 25 or 30, I'd hire all of them. . . . Their assessment skills, their clinical knowledge and their professionalism are unparalleled. When we go to their campus and interview the students at the job fair, every one of them . . . bar none, are dressed in suit attire, they have their resumes . . . they ask professional questions, and they ask for career guidance."
Many firms see themselves in a real "talent war," and they contribute millions of dollars to select HBCUs for scholarships and fellowships, infrastructure, equipment, internships and faculty training.
"By training faculty," a Nissan executive said, "the companies help to strengthen the schools from the ground up. This makes the schools more attractive to top professors, who in turn produce graduates who can compete."
The federal government also recognizes the value of HBCUs and has formed partnerships with many. One of the first such efforts started in 1995, when the U.S. Army Research Laboratory established programs to link HBCUs with public and private technology experts. Since then, scores of other lucrative federally funded programs, which focus on problem-solving strategies in science and technology, have been established on black campuses.
Hampton University is a beneficiary. Receiving an initial $92-million grant from NASA, it is the first HBCU to be responsible for a major NASA mission. It will launch satellites from California and Russia.
The tin cup and the stock market
Even with the lucrative partnerships, many HBCUs will remain viable only if they can cope with the sluggish economy, massive cuts in higher education funding nationwide, shrinking endowments and aggressive recruitment of the brightest black students and professors by traditional institutions.
This year, two schools, Morris Brown in Atlanta and Mary Holmes College in Mississippi, lost their accreditation. Morris Brown has suspended its sports programs and laid off its coaches. Grambling State University in Louisiana is on probation after auditors could not decipher the school's accounting. Bennett College, which has run up millions of dollars in deficits during the last five years, also has been placed on probation. The U.S. Department of Education is determining if the administration is capable of handling federal student aid and is asking the college to repay as much as $1-million for mismanaging aid.
The list of other HBCUs facing serious money problems and possible probation includes Talladega College in Alabama, Barber-Scotia College in North Carolina, Virginia Union University, Florida A&M, Saint Augustine's College in North Carolina, Philander Smith College in Arkansas, and Knoxville College in Tennessee. The latter has operated without accreditation since 1997.
Some of the schools in financial trouble are digging out, but the national economy is not helping. HBCU presidents rank raising money as their biggest challenge.
President Ernest McNealey of Stillman College tells this joke: "I have a very large tin cup . . . and I'm constantly running through airports with my tin cup, and wherever the plane lands, I will go to the tallest building and work my way from the penthouse on down to the garbage unit with my tin cup. And whether it's the CEO or the janitor, I will hear this long story about the declining stock market."
McNealey and his colleagues wish that President Bush could get the joke, because the president's blessings, at least on one issue, could help ease some of the HBCUs' money woes. But Bush apparently is not listening.
Soon after taking office, Bush issued an executive order creating the President's Board of Advisers on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a panel that has existed with different names under other presidents. It was charged with advising the president on black issues in higher education and with publishing a yearly report. The board completed its first report in seven months, recommending, among other strategies, that 10 percent of all federal money for higher education be allocated for black colleges.
Having already joined the fight against the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, the Bush administration refused to publish the report. To ease damage among black voters during an election season, the president announced a 5 percent increase in appropriations for black colleges.
HBCU presidents and their supporters in Congress see Bush's gesture as a ruse, amounting to $10.7-million, a mere drop in the bucket for the struggling schools. Even GOP lawmakers who supported the panel's recommendations oppose Bush's move.
If Bush had accepted the panel's recommendation and set aside 10 percent of all federal money for higher education for the HBCUs, the schools would have been helped on one big front: professors' salaries. Figures released for 2002-2003 by the American Association of University Professors show the gap between the salaries at HBCUs and traditional institutions is as wide as ever.
The average salary for the professorial rank at HBCUs was $53,000. At majority white schools, the average was $65,000. For instructors, the average salary was $41,000 at HBCUs compared with $50,000 at all others.
Some schools are so strapped for money that professors are foregoing raises, taking pay cuts and, as at Stillman College, paying larger portions of their health insurance.
HBCU presidents and the UNCF are trying, among other efforts, to convince alumni to donate more money and repay student loans at a faster rate. Sallie Mae, the nation's top student loan provider, reports that HBCUs have higher than average student loan default rates, frequently double those at other schools. The presidents are forming new corporate partnerships and are trying to halt the student "brain drain" as the brightest black students increasingly opt for traditional schools. They are seeking ways to enhance their endowments and attract dedicated, qualified professors.
The biggest irony is that while public HBCUs struggle financially, they face increasing numbers of "diversity" legal actions in states such as North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and West Virginia. In these states, opponents of affirmative action have turned the concept of multiculturalism on its head, arguing that tax dollars should not support public HBCUs.
Although established for blacks, HBCUs - unlike their white counterparts - never denied admission because of race. And they always have had white professors. Simply put, whites choose to stay away from black schools.
More than a decade ago, as traditional institutions capped enrollments, large numbers of whites took advantage of federal aid incentives to attend public HBCUs. Officials at these schools encouraged the trend for federal dollars, and white enrollment approached 50 percent at Kentucky State University and Oklahoma's Langston University while climbing even higher elsewhere.
Now, as traditional campuses relax admissions and as federal aid tightens, fewer whites attend HBCUs. Here in Florida, whites comprised 8.1 percent of total enrollments at FAMU in 1992, but only 2.8 percent last year.
Many HBCU alumni and other supporters believe the schools are the keepers of a unique tradition and heritage and should remain predominantly black. Hampton University president William Morris said he wants to maintain an 85-88 percent black majority and a white population of 12-15 percent, which would foster an integrated environment for talented students and faculty while preserving the school's black identity.
What does it mean to attend an HBCU?
For high school seniors considering a majority white college or an HBCU, William R. Moss III, a recent HBCU graduate and co-founder of HBCU-Central.Com, an online information clearinghouse, offers this advice: "When asked, on numerous occasions, what does it mean to attend an HBCU, I usually respond with: "The odds are in your favor.'
"One thing you'll begin to realize once you set foot into that first classroom is that you have no excuses for failure. Since most of my classmates and professors were black, I knew I was going to get a fair chance. Another benefit of attending an HBCU is the fact that most HBCUs have low student-to-faculty ratios, which means if you want to try sitting in the front of the class for a change, chances are you can. The odds are in your favor."