Students Are 'Coming Back Home' To Historically Black Universities

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When Donielle Smith attended high school in Cerritos, Calif., a few years ago, most of her classmates were Asian.

As a senior at the largely black Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, the black sociology major said she feels more comfortable.

"With a 4 percent black population [in high school], you kind of got lost," Ms. Smith said recently. "I needed to gain my identity, my heritage."

Ms. Smith's story is not unique--every other black student in her graduating class also enrolled at a historically black college or university, or H.B.C.U., she said.

Indeed, Ms. Smith and her classmates illustrate what is happening on the campuses of predominantly black institutions of higher education. Largely because of their desires to study in a nonthreatening environment and to explore their culture and history--but for numerous other reasons as well--more and more blacks have been enrolling in black colleges and universities in recent years.

The United Negro College Fund will soon release the results of a survey showing that enrollment at its 41 member schools, which are part of a larger group of H.B.C.U.'s, has increased by 19 percent over all since 1983. Estimated total enrollment at these schools pushed past 50,000 for the first time this academic year, the report will say.

According to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, enrollment at the 107 public and private H.B.C.U.'S rose from 213,114 in 1986 to 248,697 in 1990. Black enrollment at the schools grew from 176,610 to 207,547 over the same period, the association says.

These numbers are even more dramatic when the number of black high-school graduates and college attendees are taken into account. According to the "Ninth Annual Status Report on Minorities in Higher Education," released last January by the American Council on Education, the total black population ages 18 to 24 declined between 1986 and 1989, from 3.65 million to 3.56 million.

During the same period, the number of black high-school graduates decreased from 2.8 million to 2.7 million, the report said, although the number of college attendees increased from 812,000 to 835,000.

Meanwhile, at individual schools, the increases are staggering. At Xavier, for example, 1991 enrollment is 3,099, compared with 1,911 in 1986 and 2,237 in 1981. At Spelman College in Atlanta, the 1991 enrollment is 1,904, compared with 1,687 in 1986 and 1,447 in 1981. This year, 3,563 applicants competed for 545 freshman openings at the all women's school.

"At this time, a number of black families are concerned that their children have an experience that reinforces their status as an individual," said Deborah J. Carter, a senior researcher at the A.C.E. who has followed enrollment trends and who co-authored the status report. "What you're seeing is a resurgence in interest in institutions where a person of color would be a majority."

'Coming Home'

This trend, say educators, researchers, and students, represents a substantial change in the way some blacks view the higher-educational experience.

Until James Meredith's historic enrollment at the University of Mississippi in 1962, blacks often were not allowed to attend predominantly white schools. In those schools where they were admitted, they were not made to feel welcome.

Hence, many blacks came to rely on the network of black institutions that developed after the end of the Civil War, almost all with the assistance of northern religious denominations.

Throughout the 1970's and early 1980's, however, blacks increased their presence on predominantly white campuses.

Shay Hope, the associate director of admissions at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, is a product of the civil-rights struggles of the 1960's. Now 39, she was among the first generation of black students with fairly wide access to higher education and the opportunity to attend predominantly white colleges and universities.

"It was almost as though, in some cases, [blacks] had bought into the concept that white is better, so to speak," Ms. Hope said.

But since the mid-1980's, when enrollments at H.B.C.U.'s were lower than they were in the early part of that decade, black colleges are seeing unprecedented numbers of students who want to enroll.

"They're basically coming back home, as we like to say," Ms. Hope said.

Racism and Recruiting

Many of those applying to the black institutions are, like Ms. Smith, seeking to reclaim their identity and heritage. But several other factors have led to greater interest among black students in N.B.C.U.'S, observers say, among them:

  • The racial polarization that has engulfed many predominantly white campuses in recent years. Reports of racial confrontations have become commonplace, and many black students feel unwelcome and ostracized on these campuses.

    Last spring, for example, fraternity and sorority members at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., were disciplined for dressing a white male student as a black woman for a fund-raising variety show.

    The same month, a white student at nearby Georgetown Law School wrote a piece for The Georgetown Law Weekly charging that black students in the school were significantly less qualified than whites.

    "What we're finding is that the South really is a hospitable place and a comfortable place for black students to study," said Hugh Fordyce, the V.N.C.F.'s director of research.

  • The more sophisticated and aggressive recruitment efforts that historically black colleges have begun.

    For example, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee has embarked on a number of new recruiting efforts over the past five years, including nationwide candidate searches and repeated phone calls to prospective recruits, according to Frederick Humphries, the university's president. The school also uses athletic events as recruiting vehicles-for example, the university invited dozens of high-school and community-college students to a recent football game in Miami.

    Until recently, Mr. Humphries said, "We weren't really being that comprehensive and that broad- based as far as going after students."

    Other observers add that recruitment efforts using videodisks and other technology, more full-color brochures, the increased use of current students and alumni as recruiters, participation in recruiting fairs, added financial aid, and sponsorship of summer visits by prospective students have all led to increased interest among black students.

A Recognition of Quality

  • Recognition of the academic quality of the black schools.

    According to the U.S. Education Department, historically black colleges and universities have provided undergraduate education for three-fourths of all blacks who have received doctorates, three- fourths of all black officers in the armed forces, and four-fifths of all federal judges.

    Students also are noticing the achievements of such graduates as former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young (Dillard University in New Orleans), the filmmaker Spike Lee (Morehouse University in Atlanta), and the Children's Defense Fund's president, Marian Wright Edelman (Spelman).

    In addition, students recognize that, when major businesses want to recruit black employees, they turn to H.B.C.U.'s.

    "When business employers are looking for black employees, they're looking at H.B.C.U.'s to recruit them," said Suzanne Wilson, the assistant director of admissions at Spelman. "When students come to our colleges, they know they can be the head of any organization they want. They can be president of the student body, editor of the newspaper, or editor of the yearbook staff."

  • Increased attention to H.B.C.U.'s by the media, including the television program "A Different World," which is set on a fictional black-college campus; Mr. Lee's film, "School Daze"; and news articles in such publications as Black Issues in Higher Education, Ebony, Jet, and Essence.
  • Rising endowment and research dollars directed toward H.B.C.U.'s. The actor Bill Cosby has endowed Spelman with a gift of $20 million. Tuskegee University in Alabama, rounded by Booker T. Washington, earlier this month announced an effort to raise $150 million by the year 2000, the largest fund- raising effort ever by a black college.

    In addition, the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities has facilitated the funneling of more than $370 million in research dollars since 1981 to black colleges.

    The United Negro College Fund already has embarked on a $250 million fund-raising campaign.

A Matter of Choice

In a roundtable discussion on the Xavier campus, Ms. Smith and other students explained how they came to choose a black postsecondary school. In Ms. Smith's case, it was without the help of guidance counselors.

"We're expected to know about Yale, we're expected to know about Princeton, Harvard, U.S.C. [the University of Southern California]," she said. "Yet, [counselors] don't know about Tuskegee or Xavier or Dillard."

For Heidi Lovett, a senior mathematics major from New Orleans, predominantly white colleges-which, in her view, do not encourage volunteer service and often fail to give personal attention to students-held no attraction.

"I had no ideas about going to a white school to prove that I was better or even competitive," she said.

And Keith Amos, a senior in chemistry who was the valedictorian and only black in his Minden, La., high school, said he was encouraged to attend Xavier because of its "family environment."

A New Elitism?

The rise in enrollments at H.B.C.U.'s has not been without its drawbacks, however.

With record numbers of students enrolling, some institutions have had trouble finding the physical space for them. Some freshmen have been housed in hotels, makeshift boarding houses, and other nearby universities.

More important, though, the wave of enrollments--and applicants--has prompted speculation that some black colleges will become incredibly competitive, accepting only the most academically prepared students.

Schools like Spelman and Morehouse, Mr. Fordyce of the United Negro College Fund said, have gotten into the "enviable position" of being very selective.

But school officials say that theirs will not become elite institutions.

Ms. Wilson contends that Spelman admissions officers "are not necessarily looking for the students with the best grade-point averages or test scores because that gets boring."

Robert Albright, the president of Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, N.C., maintains that black colleges will continue to meet their historic mission of providing a higher education to traditionally underrepresented students, including low-income students and those who would not otherwise be accepted into college.

"Frankly, many of the kids who come in here with 600 and 700 S.A.T. scores go on to medical school or law school," he said.

However, Mr. Albright noted, it is predominantly white schools, not the black ones, that might be hurt most by the increasing enrollments at black schools.

"I'm afraid that this increasing racism will make it very difficult for some of our very good predominantly white institutions to attract minority students," he said. "And that would be a tragedy."

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: November 27, 1991, as Students Are 'Coming Back Home' To Historically Black Universities
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