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Sunday, February 15, 2009,9:48 PM
Black Colleges Fight Erosion of Their iche

Historically black colleges and universities, like many other schools, are struggling with both fewer resources and a growing demand from students for financial aid.

But the institutions known as HBCUs have another problem that some leaders contend is theirs alone: Many African-American students are finding their needs met elsewhere.

In 1977, 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to black students were from historically black colleges. By 2002, the share was down to 22 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, even though the number of African-American students earning bachelor’s degrees from historically black colleges actually grew.

In the days of segregation, African-American students had limited options. Now, with a wide range of choices, only 13 percent of African-American college students are enrolled in HBCUs.

Kristin Mason, a junior English major at Atlanta’s Spelman College, is one. Mason, who is from Colorado, chose Spelman, she said, because of the “sense of belonging” she felt surrounded by smart black women.

Morehouse College senior Shaun Harris, a business major from Illinois, said he was “looking for brotherhood” at the Atlanta men’s school whose alumni include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Mark Gamble of Columbus said he “embraced the diversity” at Georgia State University, where about 60 percent of the students are white, 26 percent African-American, and the rest are other ethnicities or identify themselves as multiracial.

“I like being around whites, blacks, Asians and all the other minorities,” said Gamble, a sophomore film major.

Georgia State freshman Mercedes Callaway of Atlanta said she chose the state research university over Spelman, a private women’s HBCU, because of money. A friend at Spelman is “getting a good education,” said Callaway, who is on the HOPE scholarship. “But she’s in debt to pay for school.”

HBCUs are losing students to a range of institutions, said William “Sonny” Walker, who graduated from a historically black college in Arkansas and has served on the boards of three others, including, currently, Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.

“Many of the students who came from middle- and upper-income families, whose parents could afford to pay tuition, are going to Harvard, are going to Georgia, are going to Georgia Tech, are going to Vanderbilt,” Walker said.

Many historically black schools have lower endowments than other colleges, making less money available for scholarships, school officials say. But those institutions play an important role, said Leonard L. Haynes, executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

At historically black institutions, he said, students of color can “get an education, get nurturing, get to mature and get to be good citizens after they graduate” in an environment that celebrates their cultures. “If they didn’t exist today, they would have to be created,” Haynes said.

The current economic climate — which is hitting universities across the country, public and private — is making it harder to pay the bills, exacerbating problems both for families of students and for the schools themselves, officials of local colleges say.

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman all revealed this month that they are cutting back on expenses.

Clark Atlanta President Carlton E. Brown said 70 faculty members and 30 other staffers were being laid off because of an “enrollment emergency” after years of declining numbers. At least 200 students recently dropped out or transferred to state colleges because they could no longer afford Clark Atlanta, Brown said.

Morehouse officials confirmed that they had not renewed the contracts of about 25 adjunct professors, about a third of the school’s part-time instructors.

And Spelman officials announced that they are eliminating 35 positions, 23 of them staffed, phasing out the college’s department of education and discontinuing some programs.

Spelman, whose donors include Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey, is in high demand among black women, said its president, Beverly Tatum.

“Students want to go to Spelman,” she said. “The issue is whether they can afford to go to Spelman.”

Morris Brown has struggled for years. It faces a Feb. 17 deadline to pay the remaining $214,000 of past-due water bills to the city of Atlanta. The college lost its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 2002, largely because of financial instability.

The Morris Brown board and its president, Stanley Pritchett, say they are looking at specialty programs and projects that might save the school, which, he said, would probably not be able to continue as a traditional liberal arts college.

Despite their troubles, historically black colleges and universities have fierce defenders.

“We need to find a way to preserve these institutions,” said state Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. “Our universities have struggled

to survive just as we as a people have struggled to survive.”

Historically black colleges “speak to the legacy of our forefathers,” he said.

Jones, whose degrees are from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, packed his oldest child off to college this fall.

He’s a freshman at Johns Hopkins University.


posted by R J Noriega
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