Struggling to diversify

UGA loses minorities to more attractive black colleges

The U.S. Supreme Court officially declared in June that diversity is good and that predominantly white colleges ought to get more minorities on campus. So now we can move on to the real question: If the culture's still primarily white, does the mere presence of black students make a school more diverse?

While universities like UGA vie for minorities, the reality is that many blacks aren't interested in the schools' efforts — even in the face of free rides like Georgia's HOPE scholarship. Some students say they'd rather attend historically black colleges where, unlike many mainstream schools, black students are not just accepted but embraced.

Enrollment at local black colleges is on a slow but steady rise — despite financial setbacks at two top black colleges, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown. Enrollment at the four biggest black colleges in Atlanta — Clark Atlanta, Morris Brown, Morehouse and Spelman — increased slightly from 1996 to 2000 (the most recent years available), from 12,151 to 12,358 or 1.7 percent.

The number of black undergraduates at UGA, on the other hand, have decreased every year since at least 1996. There were 1,470 black students at UGA in 1996 versus 1,185 in 2002 — a 19 percent decline. UGA is less than 6 percent black in a state where 29 percent of the population is black.

Titus Nichols, 18, will be a sophomore when he returns to Morehouse College this fall. He says he has no regrets for rejecting the free ride offered by his home state's flagship school, Ohio State University.

"They stress brotherhood at Morehouse," Nichols says. "Basically, the people are your family."

Black colleges were created in the post-Civil War era, a time when many whites considered integration the first sign of Armageddon. Because blacks were barred from the nation's white colleges, the private sector and federal government responded by creating schools solely for blacks, with courses, activities and student services tailored to their specific needs.

The factors that made black colleges attractive back then have preserved the schools' popularity to this day.

Longtime educator and state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has spent most of his career teaching at black universities. "That's where the need is greatest," Fort says. "That is where we take students and help them to realize their potential."

They realize their potential not just by getting into the school, he says, but by the school's effort to honor their culture. It also helps that students at black colleges are placed among peers facing similar challenges — and among professors who already have navigated those challenges.

Nichols says that's why he chose Morehouse over Ohio State. At Morehouse, students openly discuss issues of race identity that many whites wouldn't understand, such as what the Fourth of July holiday means and whether they should celebrate it.

Mainstream universities are lacking that dialogue, according to Fort. And Fort says that when it comes to black students at mainstream universities, "teachers don't take as great an interest as they might otherwise."

And that absence of support can lead to dropouts, Fort says. Statistics show that blacks are more likely to succeed at black colleges.

Only 17 percent of black students in the nation attend black colleges — but 28 percent of blacks who hold bachelor degrees got them from black schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And at some mainstream colleges, whites are 20 percent more likely to earn a degree than blacks, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

Two black colleges — Fisk University and Spelman College — not only do a good job of getting undergraduates to graduate, they also send a greater percentage of their graduates on to earn PhDs than more than 95 percent of all mainstream colleges.

In spite of their success in attracting black students, however, some local black schools aren't doing as well financially as their mainstream counterparts. Morris Brown currently owes the federal government $20 million for misspent financial aid funds. This year, Clark Atlanta University has reported a $7.5 million deficit, has cut 53 staff members, is cutting $500,000 in athletic scholarships and is planning to tear down the historic Paschal's restaurant because it's not profitable.

Black colleges tend to suffer in tough economic times because they rely more on individual and corporate donations than mainstream schools with their large endowments, according to Fort. Competing for government funds is difficult too, Fort says, since there are few black college alumni at the table when funds are divided.

But whatever financial stress black colleges may suffer, they don't affect what students like Nichols view as exclusive benefits.

Nichols says the largest class he's had at Morehouse had about 35 students, and he's learned that 35 aren't enough to get lost in. Skip a class and a professor will notice — and let you know that they've noticed.

"I better make sure I have a really good excuse, and I better make sure I get the information that I miss," Nichols laughs. "Their main goal is to make sure students graduate from Morehouse."