Historically black colleges diversify

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – When the country’s first black universities were established in the late 1800s, they were essentially the only option for African Americans to attain a college education in a segregated society. Yet new social realities are gradually changing the nature such institutions altogether.

Though enrollment at historically black colleges and universities has increased over the past quarter-century, the percentage of black college graduates receiving degrees from such schools has dwindled to 22 percent in 2002 from 35 percent in 1977 as more opportunities have become available at majority-white institutions, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Education.

Moreover, black colleges themselves have started to diversify. The number of whites attending historically black colleges has increased roughly 66 percent over the past 25 years, while Hispanic enrollment has nearly doubled over the same time period. Faced with funding shortages and in some states legislation mandating change, many black colleges have begun recruiting non-black students to maintain revenue.

“An HBCU [historically black college or university] is historically black, and you can’t change that foundation,” said Terricita Sass, associate vice president for enrollment management at Norfolk State University in Virginia. “But in a changing environment, if we do not change with that environment and we don’t change with our community, we will become dinosaurs.”

Like a number of black colleges, Norfolk State, the fifth largest such school in the country, began a concerted effort last fall to attract more non-black students to remain competitive with other majority-white schools in the vicinity. In some public schools in states such as Mississippi and Tennessee, the broadened recruitment efforts have been in response to court orders to either diversify or risk losing government funding.

Many have begun to reach out in particular to Hispanics, who share with African Americans a history of being underrepresented in American higher education. Educators said providing a more mixed environment helps ensure that students are prepared for the diversity of the real world.

“Anytime you bring diversity to a campus environment, everybody benefits,” said Thomas Reed, spokesman for Virginia State University. “It shows that the educational opportunities are outstanding and that we’re not part of a cloistered community that wants to shut out others who are not like us.”

However, while they agree that diversity has it benefits, some within the black college community question the impact it may have on the focus of such schools. Tamara Oyejide, president of the HBCU Network, an organization that provides information and career guidance for students at black colleges, said that as these schools become less predominantly black they risk drifting away from their original purpose.

“As the state forces them to open their doors to students of other races, I think what’s going to happen is it’s essentially going to dilute the HBCUs and they won’t truly be historically black colleges anymore,” said Oyejide. “The pros are that there will be more funding there … but the downside is that they won’t have the same focus as they have in the past on creating new generations of black leaders.”

While she agrees that diversity has its benefits, Oyejide said she fears that black colleges may focus less on celebrating black history and culture and forfeit the niche they hold within higher education. Others said that state laws requiring these demographic changes were questionable, as historically black colleges have always been open to all races.

“Perhaps for the first time, institutions that have never taken affirmative steps to exclude — and in fact have always been inclusive — are now required to take affirmative steps to diversify,” said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents black colleges.

Educators said that the mission of historically black colleges has always been to provide an education for anyone who seeks one, and insisted that these schools are not in an jeopardy of losing their identity. While it is important to embrace their history, they said, black colleges must adjust to a changing society.

“We’re proud of our past, we’re proud of our history and we’ll never forget that,” said Reed. “But our focus is on the future. To be exclusive to any community would just run counter to our strategic vision.”

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