PRESERVING HERITAGE IN THE NATION'S BLACK COLLEGES Pride in African-American Education Renews Once-Diminishing Institutions

Article excerpt

Dueling disc jockeys stood at folded tables surrounded by a mob of students, most shifting shoulders and swaying arms to the rhythms.

Two women spiraled two jump ropes at once, enticing a third to jump in time with the hip-hop throb. This lunchtime action at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee shows why some students chose the historically black school.

"I was the only black kid in class [in high school]. Now there are 12,000 different people moving and striving with me. I don't feel so alone," graduate student Julian Bryant said.

As affirmative action legislation slid open opportunities for minorities at predominantly white institutions, some advocates feared that historically African-American colleges would fade away. Since 1975, at least 10 black schools have closed. Others faced declining enrollments, financial woes and crumbling buildings.

However, in recent years, as these schools have been granted more state and federal funding and as affirmative action efforts have been threatened, black colleges have been on the rebound. For example, Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach received more than 5,000 applications in the fall for 2,700 openings.

Some say there's no longer a need for these institutions, born during segregation as African-Americans' only option for higher education. Some argue there are equal opportunities at predominantly white schools. But supporters of black institutions say the schools help black students hold onto their heritage and create a more comfortable learning environment.

Of the more than 100 black colleges in the United States, four are in Florida. Three are private: Bethune-Cookman College, Edward Waters College in Jacksonville and Florida Memorial College in Miami. The fourth, FAMU, is public.

A proclamation last year from former President Clinton said historically black colleges awarded the majority of bachelor's degrees and advanced degrees to black students in the physical sciences, mathematics, computer science, engineering and education. Black colleges have educated nearly 40 percent of the nation's black college graduates, according to Clinton's proclamation.

"They are the standard bearer. If you didn't have black colleges to show what can be done in terms of educating black students, then nothing else would have been done," said FAMU President Frederick Humphries, who was president when the university was honored as Time Magazine's College of the Year for 1997-98. "I think we keep everybody on their toes."

"The track record is stellar," said Jimmy Jenkins, president of Edward Waters College. "If you look at leadership, if you look at professionals in the black community today, the vast majority started out in black colleges. They have proven that they are capable."

PREFERRED BENEFITS

Black colleges create a nurturing environment that encourages blacks to lead and instills a sense of pride among students. They serve as a more accepting alternative than predominantly white colleges, which some say can be inhospitable to African-American students. Studies have shown that, in contrast to racial conflict noted at predominantly white institutions, black colleges have accepted other-race students with fewer problems.

Also, tuition costs are often more affordable, which aids African-American students who come from low-income communities, some of whom are the first in their families to pursue a college degree. More than 34 percent of freshmen at black colleges reported family income below $25,000, compared to 15.7 percent of all college freshmen surveyed by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA for a study last year.

Advocates say the benefits of predominantly black colleges reach beyond campus into society at large.

"The more productive we can make our students, the more productive the city becomes," Jenkins said. "The students we turn out are potential employees, entrepreneurs, taxpayers. …