- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2006

RICHMOND — When prospective college student Jessica Page trundled off to Hampton University in March, she had considered the visit a formality.

She already had made up her mind to attend the school, considered among the best of the country’s historically black institutions. Then she saw the campus. The dorms weren’t as sleek as she’d pictured and the buildings seemed antiquated.

“I wasn’t impressed,” said Miss Page, who later enrolled at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. “Hampton was my No. 1 choice — until I visited.”

She is among the steady trickle of talented black youths slipping away from the country’s most prestigious black schools.

Specialists say aging campuses are one reason. Dwindling prestige, changes in what black students value and increasing competition from white educational powerhouses provide other clues.

The resulting exodus has left some black schools struggling to market themselves to youths who don’t feel as duty-bound to the colleges as their parents before them.

“The issue for black colleges is not, in my view, that there are not enough students to go around,” said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. “Students have a lot more choices and those students are being careful and more selective than ever before.”

There are 103 historically black colleges and universities across the country. Clustered mostly in the South, they were largely funded during Reconstruction by wealthy whites as an alternative to universities that had shut out blacks.

The institutions have curried favor with black students for generations, valued as much for their unique campus traditions and family-like environment as for their skill at grooming the country’s black intellectual elite.

But data suggest the attraction is waning.

Total college enrollment of black men and women 18 to 24 has increased from 15 percent in 1970 to roughly 25 percent in 2003.

The number of black students enrolling in historically black colleges also has slowly increased — from 190,305 in 1976 to more than 230,000 in 2001.

Yet the percentage of black college students choosing black colleges has been declining — from 18.4 percent in 1976 to 12.9 percent in 2001, according to the Department of Education’s most recent figures available.

Twenty-six of 87 black colleges profiled by the agency recorded enrollment declines from 1995 to 2004.

Alabama’s Talladega College topped the list, losing nearly 54 percent of its students.

The University of the District of Columbia, which had 9,663 students in 1995, had 5,168 in 2004.

More troubling are the names of those foundering in recent years, black powerhouses such as Fisk, Tuskegee and Bennett, revered as the “Vassar of the South.”

Specialists point to an expanding black middle class and the continuing effort of predominantly white — and often elite — schools to diversify enrollment.

Lacking affirmative action programs that have been questioned on constitutional grounds, colleges and universities have worked hard to attract and keep black students.

Mr. Lomax of the United Negro College Fund said black parents are interested in degrees from schools with universal clout — and schools where their children will receive the support they need to graduate.

Mindful of enrollment erosion, the black colleges are trying new strategies, stepping up marketing and building on reputations in specialty majors.

The United Negro College Fund, which gives scholarships to students attending 39 private historically black colleges, recently initiated the Institute for Capacity Building, a program that will help schools build funds, shore up academic gaps and improve recruitment.

Kassie Freeman is a dean at Maine’s Bowdoin College and author of the book “African Americans and College Choice.” She says black schools have been missing out on prime students by focusing too much on mining black high schools for freshmen.

“It’s just the reverse with students who are attending predominantly white schools,” she said. “They would much rather go to an environment where they can find their roots.”

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