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 two bachelor's degrees in 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 at the University of Pennsylvania. "To be around students who look like you and who are ambitious and who set these tremendous goals was encouraging and empowering."
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 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 universities" designation. The purpose was to support about 100 schools, which are located mostly in the South and a handful of nearby states, that were founded to educate black Americans in the years just before and the decades after the Civil War. (Founded by a Quaker in 1837, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania is the oldest.) Today, 40 years after the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, most majority-white institutions want to increase the diversity of their own student bodies by actively recruiting racial minorities. That has forced black colleges to compete to attract their traditional student base. Case in point: Out of the 826 black American high school students who won National Achievement Scholarships in 2007, Harvard enrolled the most, with 74. Among black colleges, Hampton University claimed the largest number, with just 10.
The student drain is not the only problem black colleges have to contend with. Years of chronic underfunding (before and after desegregation) have placed some HBCUs in severe financial straits, in some cases leading to accreditation questions. When Marybeth Gasman, a professor at Penn, 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 that were "crumbling."
Michael Lomax, a graduate of Morehouse College and former president of Dillard University who is now president and CEO of UNCF-the United Negro College Fund, says these conditions do not affect all HBCUs. "American higher education is multitiered, 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."
Endowment blues. 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 18 percent of all black college students.
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."
UNCF offers more than 400 scholarship and internship programs; last year it awarded $80 million in scholarship assistance.
Updated from an Oct. 8, 2007, story in U.S.News & World Report.