The Challenge for Black Colleges

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

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What's the net cost? Dozens of elite schools such as Harvard are eagerly recruiting ace students of color and providing free or nearly free rides to students of all races from families with incomes below $60,000. Meanwhile, most HBCUs simply can't afford to provide as many scholarships as richer majority-white schools, so HBCUs can end up costing their students more. But Corey Briscoe, a junior and student government officer at Howard, says he doesn't regret turning down opportunities at George Washington University and the Citadel. "Sometimes, you've got to look beyond the price and look at what you are going to get. I met Barack Obama my freshman year," he says—an experience he doubts he would have gotten anywhere else.

Is the school accredited? Taking a chance on a struggling college can be risky. Clark-Atlanta University got into such a bind that it laid off dozens of teachers in the middle of the semester this spring, creating havoc with schedules and course loads. Several HBCUs, such as Morris Brown in Atlanta and Knoxville College in Tennessee, have lost their accreditation altogether, which means the federal government won't give students financial aid and other colleges won't accept transfer credits. Alabama A&M, Texas Southern, and Dillard have all been put on probation or warned recently by their accrediting agencies. The federal Department of Education tracks school accreditation, and two of the major accreditors of HBCUs—the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education—post notices about warnings on their websites.

Changing times. There are surprising racial and cultural variations among HBCUs. The H, after all, stands for historically black—not necessarily currently black. Today, for example, 86 percent of the students at Bluefield State in West Virginia are white and live in the state. At Howard, by contrast, about two thirds of the students are African-American, and most come from distant states or countries. Some schools, notably Spelman (for women) and Morehouse (for men), are single sex.

Many HBCUs are making special efforts to recruit Hispanic students, international students, and, in many cases, white Americans. Joshua Packwood, who in 2008 was the first white valedictorian of Morehouse, says HBCUs aren't right for all white students nor for all black students. But Packwood says Morehouse was a great fit for him. "I was elected president of my freshman dorm," he says. "People were extremely supportive."

The recession hasn't hit Morehouse as hard as it has hit other colleges because its endowment is small. Long used to working on a tight budget, schools like Morehouse hire faculty who "are not there for the paycheck but believe in the school," Packwood says.

Packwood started studying economics when times were good; he's graduating in the midst of a recession. But four years at an often overlooked institution accustomed to doing more with less was a perfect preparation for Packwood's first job. He's been hired to help an investment bank find opportunities that have been overlooked.

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