The Crossroads of History: America's Best Black Colleges

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

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And, often, the students black colleges enroll may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise, says Michigan State University education Prof. James Minor. As a prospective college student, Minor was rejected by every school he applied to in his home state of Michigan but was accepted at Jackson State University in Mississippi, where he thrived. In this way, HBCUs are "engines of social mobility," for minority students, says Lomax of the United Negro College Fund. Comments Dwayne Ashley, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund: "I shudder to think what would happen to those young men and women who would not have the opportunity to pursue their full potential. It would be a loss to the American economic fabric."

Cole knows firsthand both the strengths and the problems facing HBCUs. As president first of Spelman and subsequently of Bennett College, the only two all-women's HBCUs, Cole led successful fundraising campaigns for each. The difference, she says, was that for Spelman, which was thriving when she arrived in 1986, her role was to help "put the icing on the cake." By contrast, Bennett faced a $3 million deficit, low enrollments, building maintenance problems, and the serious possibility of shutdown when Cole came out of retirement to become its president in 2002. Her job there, she says, was "to help bake the cake."

To meet the $50 million fundraising goal, she rallied well-known figures—like poet Maya Angelou, former Sen. Bob Dole, and Bill Cosby, who with his wife, Camille, contributed $600,000 to the school. By the time Cole retired last June, four older buildings had been renovated, the school had secured an endowment of approximately $7 million to $10 million, and enrollment was on the rise. This fall, Bennett claimed a 14-year high number of students, at 671.

Bennett's new president, Julianne Malveaux, promises further progress. Plans are afoot for two new buildings, and new academic programs are being developed in entrepreneurship and communications, among other areas. Malveaux hopes to expand the enrollment to 1,000 students. "Dr. Cole got us out of the emergency room," she says. "I'm going to get us out of the hospital and running a marathon."

Florida A&M University in Tallahassee—the largest single-campus HBCU, with more than 11,000 students—is at work turning around a different set of problems. The week before FAMU's new president, James Ammons, assumed his duties in July, the university's accreditation was put on a probationary status as a result of mismanagement issues stemming from previous administrations. "Without a doubt, we are going to have to get our house in order from an audit standpoint," he says. Meanwhile, he emphasizes that FAMU has not lost its accreditation and will present a "compelling case" to remove its probationary status. And, in terms of academics, a study published in Science magazine recognized FAMU for its rapid growth in scientific research publications.

For her part, FAMU senior Monique Gillum says she has not felt any impact from the school's accreditation probation. "If anything, when people question you about why attend FAMU, or any HBCU for that matter, you understand [better] what you have" in terms of both the education and the community. Indeed, HBCUs do seem to offer unique success. Xavier University in New Orleans places more African-American students in medical school than any college in the country, and over half of all African-American women with science doctorates are alumnae of either Spelman or Bennett.

HBCUs are also finding new ways to address infrastructure needs. At Bowie State University in Maryland, for instance, President Mickey Burnim is looking at the possibility of acquiring 219 acres of land adjacent to the campus on which to build student residences and classroom space—and attract private retailers to help develop a shopping area. Such a project, says Burnim, could provide revenue to help fund scholarships and other student services. A $503 million settlement of a long-protracted desegregation case in Mississippi has opened new funding for that state's three public HBCUs—Alcorn State, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley State. As a result, "We're viable again," says MVS Interim President Roy Hudson, with two new buildings under construction, older buildings under repair, a new M.B.A. program, and an enrollment of 3,000 students.