The Black College Challenge
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90.3 WBHM | Tuscaloosa -- In the past quarter century the number of black students going to college increased almost 60 percent to 1-point-6 million. But in that same time, a dozen historically black college and universities – or HBCU’s as they’re known — closed their doors. They all cited similar problems -- decreasing enrollment, financial difficulties, and inadequate endowments. As President of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ernest McNealey knows these challenges first hand.

“I have a very large tin cup over in my briefcase and I’m constantly running through airports with my tin cup and wherever the plane lands I will go to the tallest building and work my way from the penthouse on down to the garbage unit with my tin cup. And whether it’s the CEO or the janitor I will hear this long story about the declining stock market.”

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The staggering economy has thinned corporate and alumni contributions at institutions across the country -- but historically black colleges and universities have been particularly hard hit because most don’t get state money… and because aggressive recruiting of black applicants by major public and private schools has drained a major revenue source for HBCU’s – student financial aid. Six black colleges are either on probation or have been warned by accreditation agencies… still, Ernest McNealey – who serves on the commission that investigated the financial troubles at Morris Brown and Grambling State – is quick to stress that not all black colleges are failing.

“In the case of Grambling you had an issue of the inability to produce audits. In order to be an accredited institution you must submit and audit to the commission. If an unnamed liberal arts college had difficulty with its finances and it was a traditionally white liberal arts college it would not have been a news story. The notion that there are management issues -- borders on being racist.”

“It’s easy for you to look at a problem and identify it as – these are black college problems”

Mason Bonner is Stillman’s admissions director.

“But they didn’t say at Enron that these are white accountants problems! Even though Grambling was having problems, Stillman wasn’t going through that. Howard wasn’t going through that. Hampton wasn’t going through that.”

It’s true. Some black colleges are prospering. Spelman College in Atlanta has a $220 million endowment. Xavier University in New Orleans sent more black students to medical school in 2001 than any other college in the nation. And in Tuscaloosa, Stillman College president McNealey says there’s a real renaissance.

“We’re getting applications now from states like Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin. We don’t send our recruiters into those states, but the people who live there have found us and they’re bringing their children to enroll.”

In fact, after Stillman added a football program in 1999, enrollment shot up 40%. Of particular note, enrollment among African-american males was up significantly, bucking a national trend. And the school is heightening the pitch of its marketing campaign… offering a free laptop computer to all full-time students and promoting its new bachelor’s of arts program and accomplished choir.

Crystal Simon

The music program is what attracted sophomore Crystal Simon… that, and the fact she would be surrounded by other black students and faculty.

“Most of the predominately white colleges and universities, you have a hard time seeing the professors having one-on-one interaction with the students and you don’t get that at those universities. Here at Stillman you get that. Each and every one of these teachers here have a personal relationship. They make sure that you come to class. They make sure that they notice you every class period so that you’ll know you’re important here.”

For senior Quanedra Bailey – it’s the diversity of the students that makes a historically black college so appealing.

“One of the things I admire about the black race is the diversity in the black race. There are so many different people that are even in the pool of African Americans and going here has even provided me with more open-minded view of my own people.”

Steven Onukwuli

Californian Steven Onukwuli is a graduating senior who hopes to join the Stillman staff as a counselor in a couple of months. HBCU’s are a legacy in Onukwuli’s family. Several family members attended Morgan State in Maryland. And Onukwuli plans to encourage his own children, when he has them, to follow suit.

“They will know that the legacy exists and I do expect them to attend a historically black institution … or the college of their choice… but, basically, if I’m gonna pay for it – they’re going to go to a historically black institution.”

Whether that institution will look like the one Onukwuli attends today is not clear. Observers expect that financial difficulties may force more HBCU’s out of business. Many existing HBCU’s are coping with lean times by trying to market to a larger student base. Part of Stillman College’s 10-year strategic plan includes increasing non-african American enrollment from the current 10 percent to 20 percent.