Road Trip: Prairie View A&M

Where the past shapes the future.

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This article was originally published in the America's Best Colleges 2008 edition.

Before it became a college campus, the flat earth beneath Prairie View A&M University, west of Houston, was a cotton plantation worked by slaves. That truth still matters. The majority of Prairie View's 8,000 students are African-Americans, just as were the "colored" students for whom it was founded in 1876, and many consider their fellow students family.

Since 2000, it has been state policy to open up the Prairie View family. Federal civil rights watchdogs had concluded that racial segregation was still a fact of Texas higher education. The result has been an investment in popular academic programs at the state's two historically black public universities, making sure they don't duplicate what's available on historically white campuses. The missions of Prairie View and Texas Southern in Houston were broadened to include more high-performing students, Hispanics, and other disadvantaged groups.

The tiny town of Prairie View has few attractions for students or travelers passing through on Route 290. The core campus has plenty. Seven old buildings have been replaced by striking new homes for the colleges of architecture, juvenile justice, nursing, and engineering. Apartment complexes have gone up for those who prefer not to commute. The university wanted its new student center to serve as the hub of student activities, so it located the building centrally on campus. Change has even come to the campus's iconic Coleman Library, its tower surrounded by a web of scaffolding that marks a long-overdue restoration.

Behind the scenes, there has been important change, too. The campus created a freshman neighborhood, called University College, where male and female students live separately, with a staff member to keep them focused on their studies. The Undergraduate Medical Academy offers study abroad and research work with faculty, and more than 63 percent of those in its first graduating class this year were accepted into medical school (nationally, 44.2 percent of students make it into medical school on their first try).

Mark A. Williams II, a junior biology major from Houston, chose Prairie View over Texas A&M and Baylor. He says he feels compelled to succeed by its history. "This ground is sacred," he says. "People died on this land so we could have an education."