Historically Black Colleges' Special Niche

Article excerpt

MAY 26, 1990: "That's when my honeymoon came to a screeching halt," says Julius Becton.

Just five months earlier the retired Army general had become president of Prairie View A&M University, one of 104 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States.

"We were spending upwards of $3 million over a four- or five-year period from our dormitory account, from our dining account, to prop up football," General Becton recalls. "No sport was carrying its weight."

So the new president canceled all sports except track and cross country, outraging students and alumni. But Becton's message was clear: Education is Prairie View's first priority.

Schools like Prairie View offer an opportunity for higher education to many African-Americans. One in six of the 1.2 million black students who went to college in the US in 1990 attended a predominately black institution. (There are 117 such schools, 104 HBCUs and another 13 founded after 1964).

But HBCUs were responsible for a much higher ratio - one in four - of degrees awarded to African-Americans. Among all US institutions, Prairie View's rank in graduating blacks is third in engineering and computer science, fourth in engineering science and math, and fifth in life sciences.

"We pride ourselves on being able to produce productive students able to turn into productive leaders," Becton says of HBCUs. "We take that role seriously."

Prairie View graduates include Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, Texas Congressman Craig Washington, and Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, who was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf's deputy commander in the Persian Gulf. Becton, who once directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is also an alumnus.

Located 45 miles northwest of Houston, Prairie View was established in the state constitution of 1876 as the "Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas for Colored Youth," making it the state's second-oldest institution for higher education.

Today, anyone with a high school diploma or equivalent can enroll, regardless of SAT scores. About 85 percent of Prairie View's 6,000 students are African-American.

Nine out of 10 students receive some financial aid at Prairie View, where tuition, room, and board cost about $5,000 a year. A third of the students on aid come from families that earn less than $8,000 a year. …