Black schools struggle

ARLINGTON, Texas -Rebellious bands of church leaders and social dreamers planted black colleges and universities into a nation choked with segregation and suppression in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Graduates of these pioneering institutions became teachers, doctors, lawyers, businessmen and civil rights activists. Over the course of more than a century, they shredded segregation laws, society shifted, and top universities began seeking a segment of the population they once denied.

By the 1980s, African-Americans were enrolled in record numbers at predominantly white institutions of higher education, leaving historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) struggling with tough economic times and declining student enrollments.

Texas, for example, has had at least a dozen HBCUs, and at least two have closed. Now there are nine. And they’ve felt the pressures. One has struggled to regain its accreditation. They’re scrambling for funding. Buildings and grounds need upgrading. Curricula need strengthening and recruitment, and retention and graduation rates need improvement.

To be designated an HBCU, an institution must have been established before 1964 to educate African-Americans and been accredited by a nationally recognized agency.

“HBCUs face the same challenges as other schools, but far more acutely: rising tuition, rising costs, shrinking endowments because of the market and competition with predominantly white institutions for highly qualified students of color _ at least much more so than in the past,” said Cally Waite, assistant professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“And there is a cloud which continues to hang over these schools, that somehow they are less than other institutions _ and all statistics have shown just the opposite,” Waite said.

The United Negro College Fund supports HBCUs because without them, large numbers of students would find obtaining college degrees much more difficult, said Timothy Roseborough, area development director for the fund’s Houston office.

“It’s always been about choice _ an opportunity for students, regardless of ethnicity, to have a choice in their higher education,” Roseborough said. “HBCUs have made higher education possible for African-American students by providing nurturing, caring environments so they can grow, mature and complete their education.”

Struggle is not new to HBCUs, many of which receive partial funding from the United Negro College Fund. The fund requires a recipient to be a four-year, privately owned, fully accredited HBCU. There are 39 UNCF members nationwide, and four are in Texas: Wiley, Jarvis, Paul Quinn and Huston-Tillotson.

Enrollment in Texas HBCUs is typically 600 to 800 students, however some campuses have been as low as 200, and others have reached 8,000 or more.

Poor financial conditions led to the loss of accreditation at Texas College in Tyler in 1994, damaging its reputation and causing a drop in enrollment. The college was re-accredited in December 2001 and has seen enrollment increase from 281 in fall 2000 to the current 617 students.

A foundation established by radio personality Tom Joyner named Texas College its HBCU of the month for January. The foundation said the college’s support systems and community partnerships make it unique, including its Boys ‘ Girls Club, Single Parent Program and its accelerated 15-month degree program for nontraditional students.

Texas College hopes to earn back its membership and donations from the UNCF. And it is considering a $15 million capital campaign to improve its grounds and build additional dorms. About 110 of its students now must live in a nearby hotel.

Studies show that colleges receiving money from the UNCF have only one computer for every six students. And the small, private institutions are unable to match salaries offered by larger universities to attract faculty members.

“Faculty, in science, is very expensive, so we need to train more minority students in the sciences for the work force,” Huston-Tillotson President Larry Earvin said. “But if you don’t have the faculty, you can’t generate the students for the future.”

Paul Quinn, which moved from Waco to the abandoned Bishop campus in south Dallas in 1990, is among HBCUs seeking Hispanic students to increase the student population and to become more useful to their communities.

The college is developing bilingual and English as a second language programs. It has a 3-year-old NAIA football program and is rebuilding its baseball program. Both are drawing Hispanics to the college, officials said.

“They gave me an opportunity to play football and continue my education,” said junior Claudio Urbina, 21, captain of Paul Quinn’s football team. “Now we are bringing the first Latin fraternity here.”

The family atmosphere at an HBCU and the personal attention can be beneficial for Hispanics, said Grace Gonzales, Paul Quinn’s director of testing.

“We need to look at this population of students,” Gonzales said. “They are out there, ready for recruitment.”

Tapping into the Hispanic population could give HBCUs the enrollment and tuition dollars they need to grow in the 21st century. It has worked for St. Philips. That college’s 8,400 student population is 50 percent Hispanic, 29 percent Anglo and 18 percent black.

Texas’ Hispanic population is expected to increase from 6.7 million to 10.3 million over the next 15 years, while the number of African-Americans is expected to increase from 2.4 million to only 2.9 million over the same time, according to the Office of the State Demographer.

President Bush is proposing a 5 percent increase to $224 million in funding for HBCUs for fiscal year 2004.

“On a whole, our institutions are functioning very well,” said Leonard Spearman, executive director of the White House initiative and former Texas Southern president. “It seems, for the most part, HBCUs have been competitive and have produced outstanding individuals. We don’t want anyone to lower standards. We want to compete on the same standards.”

Experts and educators acknowledge that many enrolling in HCBUs are from low-income households and are first-generation college students. That understanding led HBCUs long ago to try to become second families to their students and help them acclimate to the demands of higher education.

Tuition and room and board at an HBCU can cost around $8,000 to $12,000 a year, compared with larger universities such as Texas Christian University, where tuition and fees are $8,150 per semester. At the University of North Texas, a Texas resident will pay $4,057 for tuition, fees and room and board per semester.

HBCUs offer black students a chance to develop in an environment where they are not the minority. In a place where race is not an issue, students find it easier to gain acceptance and build self-confidence _ especially when the faculty takes a personal interest.

“I think that HBCUs fill a very important void in higher education in that they are, for the most part, very structured places that don’t let students fall through the cracks. They are very nurturing, supportive environments,” said Waite of Columbia University.

Jennifer Hallman, 21, a senior at Texas College where she is student government president, said: “There are people who saw potential in me. My talent and potential might have been overshadowed at a large institution.”

Kendrick Miller, a 22-year-old senior at Wiley who is studying computer information systems, said he considered going to the University of Texas or the University of Houston. He said a cousin, who is a college recruiter, suggested Wiley.

“It was a good experience for me. It helped my self-confidence. I got to know my culture,” Miller said. “They showed me how to live in this world, being a black man.”