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.
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.
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