The Crossroads of History: America's Best Black Colleges

Like other schools, they too now must compete for students.

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Tryan McMickens recalls the "huge blow" he felt when, as one of only a few dozen African-American students at a large, predominantly white public high school in suburban Atlanta, he heard his favorite teacher advise him not to even consider applying to a historically black college. "She told me those schools would not be the best fit for me because those schools are not the best schools," he says.

His experience at Tuskegee University, where he received his bachelor's degree in December 2005, proved her wrong on both counts. "While I was there I found a deep passion for research and for working in higher education," says McMickens, now a doctoral student in higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania. "To be around students [at Tuskegee] who look like you and who are ambitious and who set these tremendous goals was encouraging and empowering," he says.

But the very fact that McMickens's choice put him on the defensive captures in a nutshell the challenges that black colleges face. Once pretty much the only option for black students seeking higher education, black colleges today increasingly have to compete with other institutions for prize pupils. Prospective students, like the schools themselves, are struggling with how to weigh the unique traditions and culture that black colleges offer against the financial resources and elite rankings of white campuses.

In 1965, the federal government created a "historically black colleges and university" designation to support about 100 schools located mostly in the South and a handful of other nearby states that were founded with the mission of educating black Americans in the years just before and in the decades following the Civil War. (Founded by a Quaker in 1837, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania is the oldest.) Then came the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the subsequent civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Today, most majority white institutions are seeking to increase the diversity of their student body by actively recruiting racial minority students. That has forced black colleges to compete to attract their traditional student base. Case in point: Out of the 817 black American high school students who won National Achievement Scholarships in 2006, Harvard enrolled the most, with 68. Among black colleges, Howard University claimed the largest number, with just 19, and Morehouse and Spelman each only attracted six.

Cash strapped. The student drain has not been the only problem black colleges have to contend with. Years of chronic underfunding (both before and after desegregation) have placed some HBCUs in severe financial straits, in some cases leading to accreditation questions. When University of Pennsylvania education Prof. Marybeth Gasman was researching her book, Envisioning Black Colleges, she said, she could actually see the toll that maintenance delays had taken on some campuses in the form of historic buildings that were "falling apart" and archival papers "crumbling."

United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax, a graduate of Morehouse College and former president of Dillard University, says these conditions do not affect all HBCUs. "American higher education is multi-tiered, and so are black colleges," he says, noting the range in black colleges from small liberal arts colleges to larger research universities, public and private. "Some small schools are challenged, just as small colleges are across the board," Lomax says. But "Morehouse, Spelman, Hampton, among others, are stronger than they have ever been."

Graduation rates also have been a challenge for black colleges. Many students who attend HBCUs come from low-income families. These students are at risk of dropping out not for academic reasons but simply because they do not have the money to continue. And cash-strapped schools can find themselves scrambling to help out. Just add the endowments of all 103 HBCUs together, says Johnnetta Cole, president emerita of Spelman College in Atlanta and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. Then compare that total, which comes to less than $2 billion, with the approximately $35 billion that Harvard alone claims. And yet, although HBCUs constitute only 3 percent of American higher education institutions, they graduate about 24 percent of all black college students.