The Crossroads of History: America's Best Black Colleges

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

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Public service. As the country's demographics change, many HBCUs are also becoming more diverse, with increased numbers of white, Hispanic, and international students. At Mississippi's Alcorn State University, about 13 percent of the students are nonblack, says Interim President Malvin Williams. At Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, the figure is about 22 percent. "I sincerely believe that HBCUs are the meccas of a true multicultural experience," says ECSU graduate and faculty member Kevin Wade.

One of the most distinctive aspects of HBCUs that graduates and administrators point to is their dedication to the idea of public and community service. "Think Justice" is the motto at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. Philander Smith students like senior Kevin Cooper are assisting in programs celebrating the 50th anniversary this year of the Little Rock Nine's successful fight to enter the previously segregated Arkansas high school. "This is a place for anyone who is able to see the need for change" locally or globally, says freshman Tymia Morgan. "We want to be a cradle of justice, for individuals on a personal as well as a public level," says President Walter Kimbrough.

Because of its small size—550 students—Philander Smith is also a place where Kimbrough not only responds to student E-mails but takes students out to lunch to hear what's on their minds. Many HBCU students and alumni extol this "family" spirit. "Without that nurturing environment, I don't know if I would have been able to excel as I did," says 2005 Tuskegee graduate Timothy Banks, now a manager at a pharmaceutical company. "I don't know if I would have felt as comfortable or I would have had the self-confidence that I do."

"The perception that because HBCUs may have less financial resources, that the academic experience isn't as rich or the quality of education will not be as high quality is just not true," says Pamela Felder Thompson, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University who has studied doctoral students' development at elite institutions and is herself an HBCU alum, from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. "Don't underestimate the scholars that teach at HBCUs, or the scholarly experience that the students can receive."

Famous Black College Alumni

Howard University: Thurgood Marshall, Sen. Edward Brooke, and Toni Morrison

Morehouse College: Martin Luther King Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, and Spike Lee

North Carolina A&T State: Rev. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Jackson Jr.

Spelman College: Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman

Tennessee State University: Oprah Winfrey