Pride and Paradox ; Black Colleges Connect Students to a Past Rich with Civil Rights Activism. but Their Traditional Mission Has Become Diluted in an Integrated World

Article excerpt

When the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in admissions last week, few campuses welcomed the decision more warmly than a cluster of African-American colleges here.

These six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long been the civil rights movement's most fertile breeding ground. It's where W.E.B. DuBois taught and Martin Luther King Jr. went to school, as did a cadre of organizers working to defeat segregation.

Ironically, these colleges might have benefited from a rollback of affirmative action. Less opportunity on predominantly white campuses could have boosted applications at these schools, some of which are struggling financially and all of which are redefining their role in an integrated educational system.

Founded after the Civil War, black colleges awarded most of the degrees earned by African-Americans. Integration in the 1960s provided new educational opportunities, but the resulting migration to predominantly white schools weakened many black colleges. They lost students, faculty, and even their best athletes.

Not all 103 of the nation's HBCUs are struggling. Atlanta's all- male Morehouse and all-women's Spelman are flourishing, bolstered by endowments. But the current recession has deepened financial problems at many chronically underfunded public black colleges and private schools, such as Atlanta's Morris Brown College.

Today, nothing better showcases HBCUs' diverging fortunes than the short walk here between Spelman and Morris Brown's campuses. Both feature grassy quads full of brick academic buildings and views of Atlanta's skyscrapers a couple miles away.

But on Spelman's 34-acre campus, swarms of construction crews finish the exterior of a new $20 million building endowed by Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille. Nearby, a modern science center was recently renovated, and high-speed Internet access will soon be added to dorms.

Up the road at Morris Brown, concrete pathways are cracked and paint peels from the empty student center. The school lost its accreditation in April due to financial irregularities - a situation that disqualified students from federal financial aid and drove many underclassmen away.

From its beginnings in the basement of a famed Atlanta African Methodist Episcopal church in 1881, the school was long known for accepting those who didn't have the credentials or money to go elsewhere.

Today, Morris Brown owes the US Department of Education more than $5 million in improperly obtained financial aid on top of a debt that reached $27 million. The school's leaders are now scrambling to raise enough money to reopen in the fall.

Morris Brown may be an extreme example, but it is far from the only HBCU suffering financially today. As many as 15 percent are on probation with accreditation agencies. Much of their problems are beyond the schools' control, observers say.

African-American underemployment has meant that HBCUs couldn't build safety nets from alumni-funded endowments. Instead, the colleges rely heavily on student tuition payments, corporate donations, government aid, and foundation grants - all of which dry up during recessions.

Strapped for funds

In recent years the most elite black colleges have started aggressively tapping alumni for donations. Spelman's endowment now stands at $215 million. In fact, a quarter of HBCU presidents have retired in the last three years, most of whom cited the constant strain of fundraising as a reason to leave early.

Spelman's new president, Beverly Tatum, jumped from Mt. Holyoke, an all-women's school with an endowment of $350 million. The true gap between the two schools' endowments is much larger, Ms. Tatum says, because Spelman must support a needier student body, 87 percent of whom receive financial aid.

The problem is even more acute for public HBCUs and smaller church-supported schools, such as Morris Brown, which can't raise a fraction of that money. …

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