And often, the students black colleges enroll may not have had the opportunity to attend college otherwise, says James Minor, a professor of education at Michigan State University. 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 UNCF's Lomax. 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."
HBCUs do seem to offer unique success stories. 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. In terms of academics, a study published in Science magazine recognized Florida A&M University in Tallahassee—the largest single-campus HBCU, with more than 11,000 students—for its rapid growth in scientific research publications. Positive headlines are welcome at FAMU, where school president James Ammons came into office in 2007, just one week after the university had been put on probationary accreditation status. Since then, "we've turned around significantly" the audit and management problems that led to the probation, says Ammons. This summer, FAMU was waiting to see if its status would be restored.
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 Alcorn State University in Mississippi, about 10 percent of the students are nonblack; 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., and last year Kevin Cooper, a Philander Smith senior, assisted in programs celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine's successful fight to enter the city's previously segregated high school. "We want to be a cradle of justice, for individuals on a personal as well as a public level," says the college's 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.
"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, and an HBCU alumna herself, 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."
Updated from an Oct. 8, 2007, story in U.S.News & World Report.