CREATING A NICHE; Historically Black Colleges Have Been Dealing with Enrollment Dropoffs. Rebranding Is Key. KEY PROGRAMS the Successful Schools Have Trademark Opportunities That Attract Students. EDWARD WATERS after Years of Instability and Scandal, the First Coast College Eyes a Comeback

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Byline: MATT COLEMAN and TOPHER SANDERS

They all want to be something different when they grow up.

There's a lawyer. A police officer. A doctor. A chef.

One even wants to be a professional basketball player - or an architect, if that growth spurt never kicks in.

Nat Glover locked eyes with each of them. The seven teens were on the Edward Waters College campus in Northwest Jacksonville during a meeting of the Black Males College Explorer Program, a school dropout prevention group.

Glover, the city's former sheriff and current interim president of Edward Waters, seized the opportunity to talk to them about making their dreams reality.

"You want the fancy car, the big house, the wad of money in your pocket? Well, you need something up here," Glover said, pointing a ringed finger at his head. "You know how you get that? College. I expect to see y'all back here so I can hear about your college plans."

If one of those students returns to the group with a newfound interest in his studies, Glover considers his mission accomplished. But it goes deeper than that.

Getting the students to stay in school is good. Getting them into college is better. Getting them enrolled at Edward Waters is the goal.

In 1920, there were 217 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Edward Waters nationwide.

Now there are 105 in 20 states, primarily in the South, and many are wrestling with slim budgets and enrollment drop-offs.

The key to survival, some college administrators and academics say, is for struggling black colleges like Edward Waters to rebrand themselves.

The more successful schools have trademark programs that set them apart from the pack. Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, for instance, has a prominent pharmacy school that has helped place it among the upper echelon of black colleges.

Schools that haven't identified a strong niche program, like Edward Waters, have had difficulty marketing themselves to prospective scholars. That's why Glover told The Times-Union he's working with his staff to identify a possible Edward Waters signature.

He understands the gravity of his decision. And he hopes his legacy at Edward Waters includes the establishment of an institutional trademark.

"It's simple. Students need a reason to go here, and I'm aiming to give it to them," he said. "We want a program here that makes people say, 'Hey, Edward Waters is the place to go.'"

THE COLLEGE LINCHPIN

Black colleges used to be the only higher education option for African-American youths. But white colleges and universities eventually opened their doors, and the advent of community colleges and for-profit schools promoted open access for increasing numbers of students.

At Edward Waters, additional problems have resulted from decades of instability and scandal. Enrollment plunged after institutional plagiarism in 2004 that nearly stripped the school of its accreditation. The beleaguered college has had difficulty repairing its community image, leading to fundraising woes and consistent budget deficits.

Marybeth Gasman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who researches national trends at black colleges, said many of those issues could be fixed with an institutional makeover.

The first step would be to carve out a niche for the school to help differentiate it from rival colleges. If a school establishes itself as a leader in a one field, she said potential donors and interested students will line up.

"It's the linchpin for every HBCU," Gasman said. "When you think of the best HBCUs, each one of them is leading the pack in a certain area. They might not be amazing at everything, but they're very good at a few things."

FAMU is one of the most obvious examples of a black college that made early strides to brand itself as more than just a solid liberal arts institution. …