Thelma Eaton has built bridges before.
But spanning the distance between Whittier College and the troubled streets of South-Central Los Angeles may be her toughest undertaking yet.
Raised and educated in the Deep South, Eaton believes that the children of Watts belong in college, especially small, liberal-arts institutions like Whittier.
So 17 years after she broke the color barrier at Whittier and became the first black professor on campus, she is working some of Los Angeles' roughest neighborhoods to spread the word about higher education and Whittier College.
She calls her crusade the Crosstown Project.
Through workshops, field trips and counseling sessions, Eaton hopes to persuade students and their parents at six predominantly black South-Central high schools and junior highs of the value of attending college.
And if they eventually choose Whittier College, all the better.
Whittier College is struggling to boost its sagging black enrollment.
Black Enrollment Down From 1977
At a time when the college has become a magnet for Latinos, boasting one of the highest percentages of Latino students among California's 123 public and private four-year schools, black enrollment on campus has fallen from a high of 104 in 1977. This fall, among Whittier's 1,100 students, only 41 are black, and 1986 marks the ninth straight year black enrollment has declined at the century-old college.
The reasons for this trend are varied and reach well beyond Whittier into the very neighborhoods and schools of black Los Angeles that Eaton has targeted.
Across California, many private colleges and universities are reporting a drop in black enrollment, and experts blame, among other things, the high cost of education and the lure of the job market.
Unlike a decade ago, educators say, the drive today among many blacks, especially males, is to get out of high school and go to work. Only one-third of Whittier College's blacks are males.
"Immediate gratification is the thing these days," said Eaton, a professor of social work who has taken a year's leave of absence to coordinate the Crosstown Project.
"In my day, it was not a matter of whether you were going to college, but where," she said. " . . . But now it's 'How much can I make when I get out of high school?' "
Another hurdle for blacks at Whittier is the price tag. Annual tuition is now $8,600, and when books, student fees and room and board are added it can run as much as $12,800 a year, Whittier College spokesman Donald Stewart said. Three out of four Whittier students, including most blacks on campus, receive some type of financial aid.
Attending a four-year school has become a "difficult economic choice" for blacks, said Hans Giesecke, assistant vice president of the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities. Many blacks, he said, are under increasing pressure from family and friends to step straight into the workplace after high school. Based on 1985 enrollment figures, a growing number of blacks are just not going to private colleges in California. Among 80,775 undergraduates at the association's 62 member schools, only 6% were black, down from a high of about 8% in the late 1970s. Statewide, blacks make up 7.9% of the population, according to 1980 census figures.
At the state's two public university systems, the picture is a little brighter.
Within the nine-campus University of California, black enrollment has gone from a low in 1980 of 3,474, or 3.9% of 89,516 undergraduates, to 4,441 blacks, or 4.3% of 103,865 undergraduates last year.
On the 19 state university campuses, including the one in Long Beach, black enrollment has hovered around 5.5% since the mid-1970s. At Long Beach last year, about 5.6% of the 32,519 undergraduates were black.
Because fewer blacks are attending private colleges, the competition for those who are college-bound has intensified as small schools like Whittier try to out-recruit the Stanfords and Harvards of the land.
Reputations Carry the Day
"Those institutions with the best reputations and biggest name recognition are doing well, and will continue to do well at the expense of smaller schools," Giesecke said.
Stanford University, for example, has nearly 6,500 undergraduates, with a black enrollment of 8%, a figure that has actually gone up slightly in recent years.
When it comes to attracting blacks, Whittier College has another problem: its image.
Although the campus is less than 20 miles from a string of black communities, Whittier College officials acknowledge that some blacks have no idea where the school is. And those who know cling to the misconceptions that it is either all-white or a two-year college, officials say.
"There are some blacks," Eaton said, "that think Whittier is a community college for rich kids in Orange County."
It's an easy mistake to make considering the city of Whittier's demographics.