Historically black schools find place in new millennium

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – There is a place for high school students who want their minority to be the majority.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), once the only place for African-American youngsters to go, are now trying to find their niche in the array of choices available to graduating high school students.

“HBCUs have been a place where African-American students have been able to receive a quality education, first, when other doors were closed to them – and today, even when those doors are open,” said Secretary of Education Richard Riley, speaking last Wednesday to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

“HBCUs have provided a bridge for upward mobility; a place for independent thought, as well as an environment that nurtures and supports students and faculty growth,” Riley said. “Equally important, HBCUs have played, and continue to play, an important role in the strengthening of American culture and society.”

The nation’s 105 historically black schools provide students with the same real-world preparation as other schools, called “majority” schools in the higher education community. But HBCUs appeal to African-American students because they provide students with added background in their culture.

“We have not gotten away from teaching our students about our culture,” said Warren Dates, student government association president at Miles College in Fairfield, Ala. “Without knowing whose you are, you can never know who you are.”

Tishawn McWilliams, a senior and “Miss Miles College,” said she wanted to apply to only historically black colleges.

“I knew I would be around those who have been through the same thing,” McWilliams said. “The faculty understands what it will be like for you in the real world.”

But the HBCUs are becoming more integrated each year. Admissions representatives at HBCUs say the schools still have a role – a chance to reach African-American students who might not get a chance to attend otherwise.

“The role of HBCUs is continuing education for students of color to make sure they are ready for the new millennium,” said Sarah Rivers, an admissions counselor at Kentucky State University in Frankfurt, Ky. “We still have a role for those students that could not make the transition to majority schools.”

KSU, which is 50 percent black, has seen an increasing student presence from South America and Africa, Rivers said. Diversity is an important part of the mission of HBCUs.

“We’re here to promote education and all students are welcome,” she said.

Her sentiments are echoed by Morris Hall, an admissions counselor at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Ala.

“A lot more ethnic groups have come into black colleges and universities, and we’ve been able to bring people together,” Hall said. “I don’t think we’ve changed, but we’ve opened up a lot more doors for young people.”

Dr. Edward Fort, NAFEO’s chairman and chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University, said the education of minorities will become more important in the next 20 years, as minority groups become more prominent than Caucasians in America.

“In terms of diversity, the whole arena will be rearranged,” Fort said. “There will be increased emphasis for ensuring qualified, well educated blacks.”

Fort said not providing educational opportunities for African Americans is like signaling the race’s own death penalty.

“(HBCUs) are getting stronger and more powerful and a force to be reckoned with in the education of this nation,” he said. “You’re going to have to increase dependency on our product for the survival of the entire nation.”

-by Matt Berger, U-WIRE Washington Bureau

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