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Doctoral student Simone Barrett is researching the history of student activism at her campus, now Morgan State University. / Matt Roth for USA TODAY

BALTIMORE - The photograph, taken in 1963, shows uniform-clad women huddled around a newspaper, a hint of a smile on some of their faces. At first glance, the jail-cell bars are barely detectable. The headline provides the context: "218 Students Arrested; $90,000 Bail Set for 150."

The Northwood Theatre, which within a week would open its doors to African-American patrons, was "the last holdout" in the campaign to desegregate Baltimore businesses, says Simone Barrett, a doctoral student who is researching the history of student activism at her campus, now Morgan State University. Morgan State students also were at the head of a movement that eventually would open all colleges and universities to black students.

By 1960, the year four black college freshmen refused to give up their seats at a whites-only lunch counter at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C., sit-ins by Morgan State students had already desegregated lunch counters in 37 Baltimore drugstores and a local chain of ice cream parlors.

At the time, it was known as Morgan State College, one of four public institutions established by the state of Maryland to educate its black citizens. Today, the university stands at the center of what could become a new era for civil rights in higher education. A federal judge ruled in October that Maryland and its state higher education commission had failed to meet their legal obligation to ensure that all 12 of its four-year public institutions, including those that once enrolled only black students, are "comparable and competitive."

Now, lawyers representing a group of alumni and students are in talks with state higher education officials about how to make things right. Although only Maryland schools are affected, many black leaders say the judge's ruling represents a victory for the nation's 105 historically black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs.

That designation refers to public and private institutions founded in the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for the express purpose of educating African Americans. Located primarily in former slave states, they have graduated some of the most famous names in civil rights history, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall.

The passage in 1964 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act brought an end to racial segregation and demanded that states treat all public colleges and universities as equals. Yet 50 years later, "you see a real history of unequal funding, some up to the current day," says education professor Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania.

The last few years have been particularly tough. A 2011 change in eligibility requirements for a federal lending program for parents of college students took a disproportionate toll on HBCUs, leading to enrollment drops and budget shortfalls at many of the institutions, including Morehouse College in Atlanta and Howard University in Washington, D.C. In October, Education Secretary Arne Duncan apologized to HBCU leaders and encouraged parents who were denied loans to appeal the decision. Nearly all of those who asked to have their applications reconsidered eventually got their loans, but more than 15,000 denied applications involving historically black colleges were never appealed, Education Department spokesman Cameron French said.

At the state level, some lawmakers in Georgia and Louisiana have proposed, so far without success, that schools built for black students be merged with traditionally white institutions nearby as a way to manage shrinking higher education budgets. Saint Paul's College - a private historically black school in Lawrenceville, Va., founded in 1888 - closed last summer, unable to overcome financial difficulties and concerns about academic quality by accreditors.

HBCUs, which in 2011 enrolled 324,000 students, including about 11% of all African-American college students, also must contend with an image problem. Ray Von Robertson, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, calls it the "white is right" problem: a creeping tendency among African-American students to "look at attending a predominantly white institution as, in a sense, having arrived."

Federal graduation data from 2011 show that 56% of undergraduates nationwide earned a bachelor's degree within six years of enrolling while just 30% of those at HBCUs did. The HBCU figure is lower than the 37.5% average six-year graduation rate for African-American college students nationwide.

Champions of HBCUs say such comparisons fail to recognize that a key element of the HBCU mission is to educate the nation's poorest and least academically prepared. "In many places where these data show HBCUs lagging behind their national counterparts, the disconnect reflects less on the institutions themselves than on the tendency in the United States to invest in students who need the least help instead of those who need the most," Gasman says. "What is striking is how successful HBCUs have been in educating traditionally underserved students despite the many obstacles these institutions face."

In the face of such concerns, HBCU leaders are taking steps to demonstrate their value and diversify their student bodies. At least 20% of students at about a quarter of HBCUs are non-black, 2011 federal data show. Whites represented 13% of their enrollments. Many HBCUs, including Tennessee State University and North Carolina Central University, are actively recruiting Hispanic students."We want to make sure that we get a share of those students because we have developed excellent models," says Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, an advocacy group. She calls HBCUs "exemplars of equal opportunity education institutions."

HBCUs also hope to strengthen academic programs in science, technology, engineering and math. The federal judge in the Maryland case recommended that the higher education commission work with historically black schools to carve out niche programs, such as health care facilities management and computer sciences, that meet the workforce needs in the state.

Earl Richardson, who retired in 2010 after 26 years as president of Morgan State, says that's all he ever wanted: for HBCUs to be equally attractive to students regardless of race. Historically black colleges, he says, "are a fact of history, not a statement of exclusion."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Black colleges examine their mission

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