His­tor­i­cally black colleges en­dure de­spite hard­ships

Stu­dent en­roll­ment seems to be look­ing up

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Ja­son Gon­za­les

NASHVILLE – Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights ac­tivist and long­time con­gress­man John Lewis. Writer Langston Hughes. Oprah Win­frey.

Just a few names from the long and pres­ti­gious list of lead­ers and in­no­va­tors ed­u­cated at his­tor­i­cally black colleges and uni­ver­si­ties, or HBCUs.

“HBCUs built the black mid­dle class,” says Mary­beth Gas­man, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Mi­nor­ity Serv­ing In­sti­tu­tions at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. “With­out them, blacks could not be where they are to­day.”

That legacy con­tin­ues at about 100 in­sti­tu­tions na­tion­wide that were started to serve black com­mu­ni­ties be­fore de­seg­re­ga­tion. To­day, about two-thirds of all U.S. black en­gi­neers, physi­cians and sci­en­tists are grad­u­ates of HBCUs.

“HBCUs were, and are, cen­ters of black em­pow­er­ment,” Gas­man says.

The schools have weath­ered com­pe­ti­tion from larger uni­ver­si­ties, and some have bounced back af­ter en­roll­ment de­clines and fi­nan­cial hard­ships. Strug­gles per­sist, how­ever. En­roll­ment hov­ers at about 300,000 stu­dents na­tion­wide, but in­ter­est has spiked re­cently at some of the na­tion’s HBCUs.

Fisk Univer­sity in Nashville, which counts W.E.B. DuBois and Ida B. Wells among its alumni, has en­dured, thanks to its legacy of high ex­pec­ta­tions, says Reavis Mitchell, a Fisk his­tory pro­fes­sor.

Dur­ing seg­re­ga­tion, Mitchell says, HBCUs at­tracted the best black stu­dents in the coun­try.

“For years, (HBCUs) had the pick of the very best and bright­est,” he says. “At the end of seg­re­ga­tion, they had rich his­to­ries, and there was a tra­di­tion of stu­dents com­ing to pre­pare for fu­ture suc­cess.”

More re­cently, many schools have fo­cused en­roll­ment ef­forts on di­ver­sity and new Amer­i­can stu­dents. That fo­cus hasn’t di­min­ished the over­all mis­sion of the schools, Gas­man says.

“HBCUs are be­gin­ning to reach out to non-blacks, in­clud­ing whites but, more im­por­tantly, Lati­nos and Asians, to in­crease en­roll­ment,” Gas­man says.

The mis­sion of work­ing with un­der­served stu­dents, no mat­ter their eth­nic­ity, brings with it its own joys, says Phyl­lis Free­man, a Fisk as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy. “Each life I im­pact, each life I touch, they go back into their com­mu­ni­ties and its vast­ness,” she says.

Muham­mad Ali, cen­ter, walks with stu­dents at Fisk Univer­sity in Nashville on April 23, 1975. FILE PHOTO BY FRANK EMPSON/THE TEN­NESSEAN

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