The Challenge for Black Colleges

Like all schools, historically black colleges have their strong points and their drawbacks.

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The downturn in the economy that has forced cutbacks at some of the nation's richest colleges is endangering the very survival of some of the poorest, including several long-struggling historically black colleges and universities. But alumni, professors, and outside analysts say that the better-funded HBCUs' long experience weathering hard times and helping students whom other schools have shut out could make them increasingly attractive.

"HBCUs have survived worse things than this, like the Civil War," notes Ketema N. Paul, assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Morehouse School of Medicine and a graduate of Howard University. The top HBCUs are attempting to prove they offer an education that rivals that of better-known universities, often at a lower price.

Their pitch could prove especially attractive these days to students of all races. HBCUs' traditional students, African-Americans, are flocking to colleges in record numbers; today, 2 million plus are in college, more than double the number of 30 years ago. The Obama presidency is expected to inspire even greater interest in higher education among the minority youngsters who make up the fastest-growing part of the college-age population. And a growing number of white students are enrolling in HBCUs. At several HBCUs, in fact, the majority of the student body is now white.

No shortage of applicants. Some HBCUs, including Harris-Stowe State in St. Louis and Prairie View A&M in Texas, have seen applications skyrocket in 2009, in part because they are low-cost public universities.

Others, such as Xavier University of Louisiana, are recruiting based on their track records of turning disadvantaged kids into stars. Xavier boasts that it sends more African-Americans to medical school than any other college in the nation. It manages to do this while charging about $25,000 for everything—tuition, fees, room, board, books, transportation, and so on. While that may sound high, many big public universities—in California, for example—have similar sticker prices for in-state students. Also, over half of all Xavier students receive grants averaging more than $5,000, bringing their net cost below $20,000.

HBCU grads often rave about a family feeling on campus, supportive professors, and lifelong friendships. Today, more than two decades after he got his bachelor's from Oakwood University in Huntsville, Ala., Milton L. Brown, endowed chair of experimental therapeutics and professor of oncology at Georgetown University, is still in weekly or monthly contact with 40 or 50 college pals. "There was a network of people who really cared about me," he says.

Four questions to ask. But students and grads warn anyone considering an HBCU to temper their idealism with hard facts and tough questions:

Will you graduate? Many HBCUs have comparatively low graduation rates. Since dropping out of college is one of the most costly mistakes a student can make, it pays to check out the graduation rate for students who match your characteristics at the Education Trust . Subscribers to U.S. News's Premium Online Edition can also research college graduation rates.

Those who do may be surprised: There are dramatic variations among HBCUs. Fewer than 20 percent of students at Coppin State in Maryland manage to graduate within six years, but nearby Morgan State graduates almost 40 percent. What's more, some larger majority-white schools, such as Temple University in Philadelphia, graduate a higher percentage of their minority students (56 percent of African-Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics) than do many HBCUs. Brown suggests asking what support systems—financial, mentoring, and educational—exist to help students.

Are you in the right program? Many HBCUs have long had less money to spend on each student than have comparable majority-white schools. Less money typically means larger classes, fewer services, and lower-paid faculty and sometimes means unsatisfactory educations. Howard University nursing students, for example, picketed the campus last fall to draw attention to their concerns about the level of instruction. HBCU students recommend aiming at schools that specialize in your area of focus. Howard's business program, for example, is well respected. Hampton, Norfolk State, and Xavier have all invested in science labs.