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Appeal of All-Black Campuses Is Growing

Many African Americans say they are drawn by a sense of community.

May 28, 2000|From Newsday

Strolling the campus of Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., senior Valerie Smith explained why she decided to attend a historically black college after graduating from a New York high school in 1996.

She passed an administration building, where weeks earlier the college president led a rally against flying the Confederate flag atop the state capitol.

She passed fellow students dressed in office attire, a once-a-week tradition at the school that reminds them of their preparations to join the professional world.

And perhaps most tellingly, her business management professor stopped her outside the library, jovially encouraging her to visit his office with questions about her course work.

"I did agonize over my decision, ot because I did not want to 'be in a predominantly black environment,' but because I knew that as long as these colleges and universities have been historically black, they have been neglected by the government," Smith said. "That means they have to depend on the black community, and it doesn't take a genius to see that the black community on the whole is not rich."

But, she added, "I feel a sense of community here. There is the belief that we have to do things for the good of the black community."

A generation after barriers to black admissions began falling at predominantly white college campuses--and almost 150 years after the first black colleges were established by the abolitionist movement--historically black colleges continue to play a pivotal role in the education of African American youth.

Today, almost one in three baccalaureate degrees awarded to black students nationwide is from one of the nation's 103 historically black four-year institutions, according to data provided by the United Negro College Fund in Fairfax, Va.

And admissions are up. Buoyed by a steady increase in the number of African American high school graduates, undergraduate enrollments at black colleges rose 20% in the 10 years ending in 1996, reaching 220,982 students, according to the most recent information available from the fund. For all undergraduates, enrollments were up 9%.

The steady rise in popularity of historically black colleges has been mirrored in Los Angeles area schools, according to education officials.

For example, at Westchester High School, where 72% of the students are African American, guidance counselors said that last year about a quarter of their approximately 100 college-bound seniors chose historically black colleges.

"It's absolutely been a trend for the entire decade," said Keith Funk of Westchester High School, who has been a guidance counselor at eight high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 27 years. "There's been an increasing awareness of [historically black colleges], and the word-of-mouth has been very strong as well."

The impact that the institutions are having on the education of black America is nothing less than remarkable, many educators say.

For example, Xavier University in New Orleans, a private college with 3,500 students, boasts of having educated 25% of the nation's black pharmacists and of sending more black undergraduates to medical school than any other U.S. institution.

The nation's historically black colleges and universities date from 1854, when Lincoln University in Pennsylvania was chartered as Ashmun Institute. In its first 100 years, Lincoln graduated about 20% of America's black doctors and 10% of its black lawyers, including former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Today, historically black schools include state-funded universities and private colleges. Howard University in Washington, D.C., is the largest private predominantly black institution, with 10,500 students, and schools of medicine, law, dentistry and pharmacy, among others.

In the 1980s, Los Angeles students rarely even applied to historically black colleges, said Funk of Westchester High. The reasons ranged from the schools being too far away from home--most are in the South--to an unfair perception that the education wouldn't be competitive.

A Nurturing Environment

But local students who have graduated from historically black colleges frequently praise the many benefits of the education. In addition to lower teacher-to-student ratios than at the bigger UC or Cal State schools, local students say the nurturing environment--particularly in the wake of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209--enhanced their college experience.

Many of the schools were founded by religious leaders and retain links to black churches that help recruit students and pay their way. And black colleges often preserve African American cultural elements, such as Negro spirituals, or foster community activism.

At Benedict, neighborhood development projects hatched by college President David Swinton led to construction this year of a $2.5-million facility to house small businesses, and the renovation of several dilapidated houses near campus that once were centers for drug dealing.

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