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Black Colleges Lobby Hard to Lure the Best and Brightest

March 8, 2001

Black Colleges Lobby Hard to Lure the Best and Brightest


WASHINGTON, March 7 For H. Patrick Swygert, the president of Howard University, it has become a rite of winter. As evening falls over the capital, the head of one of the nation's best-known historically black universities leans over the telephone and peers through his glasses at his list.

On it are the names of African- American high school seniors who are top achievers, students for whom the doors to Ivy League institutions are ready to swing open. Some have not even applied to Howard. But Mr. Swygert, convinced that his university still has something important to offer that predominantly white institutions cannot, will personally call each one to make a pitch for a place where, he bluntly promises, they will feel more comfortable.

"At Howard, you can be as smart as you want to be and as black as you want to be, and both your blackness and your intelligence are assumed," Mr. Swygert says.

As top universities around the country have opened their halls to high-achieving African-American students, black colleges and universities are working harder and more forthrightly at recruitment. A major impetus has been a decline in enrollments in the last five years, forcing some institutions to work harder at selling these students on the virtues of attending a university where they are not in the minority.

Recruiters remind prospective applicants that their campuses, in contrast to largely white ones, offer minority students an abundance of role models and mentors, opportunities for leadership, and an atmosphere in which nobody dismisses their accomplishments as the easy fruit of civil rights victories rather than merit. Along the way, college officials and students are redefining their institutions' roles to meet the challenges of a post-affirmative- action world.

From 1976 to 1994, the number of blacks at largely white colleges jumped 40 percent; at historically black colleges, the rise was half that.

Theodora Riley, interim director of admissions at Spelman College, a black women's institution in Atlanta, said she did not favor the hard sell. But Ms. Riley said she did tell high school seniors that Spelman "will put you in an environment where there are people who look like you and are successful."

While minority students at mainly white institutions often report feeling isolated, Ms. Riley promises high expectations from Spelman professors and an atmosphere that will "help you continue on that track of self- confidence and esteem."

Sales pitches aside, Spelman faces a challenge that wealthier predominantly white campuses may not find as daunting: meeting the financial needs of its applicants. "Students get a wonderful letter saying, Congratulations, you've been admitted, and that's it," Ms. Riley said. "But 85 to 90 percent of the students who apply need financial aid."

Spelman, with about 2,000 students, can offer full scholarships to only about 100 applicants a year.

At Hampton University, the president, William R. Harvey, said his historically black institution, founded in 1868, had no difficulty drawing high achievers. The number of applicants stands at 9,000 a year for the 1,000 slots available. Dr. Harvey said the university actively worked to win over strong African-American students, emphasizing what it could offer that the University of Virginia, a highly competitive institution in the same state, could not.

"If you find a black kid going to a predominantly white school, once in a while you'll have one who'll be president of an organization, or a class officer," he said. "Here, you're going to have 120 or so a year that will be presidents of organizations."

In pitching Howard, Mr. Swygert does not rely exclusively on an appeal to racial identity. To Cloyd Trouth, an aspiring medical student, Mr. Swygert talked about the new medical library under construction. To Venus Taylor, who plays saxophone, he promised a place in the school's renowned Showtime band.

Damian Waters, a Rochester student who had not even applied to Howard but who impressed Mr. Swygert with SAT scores that topped 1300, had only to hint at the costs of making a visit to Howard for Mr. Swygert to cut in. "We can tend to that," he assured the senior.

When Mr. Swygert called him, Mr. Waters spoke of his work in a multicultural club built on the beliefs of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Swygert made sure to tell Mr. Waters that he would find many others at Howard "who are outstanding academically and have a real sense of purpose and understanding of what Dr. King was all about."

By the time Mr. Swygert hung up, he was so impressed that he vowed to travel to Rochester to meet Mr. Waters. He even enlisted the mayor of Rochester, William Johnson, to help with the recruitment. "This kid could be a terrific leader some day," Mr. Swygert said. "If you get two or three of these young people, they're not only academically gifted, but they can affect the whole class."

Mr. Swygert said he had no compunctions about going after students who could attend the nation's most competitive universities. At Howard, he said, they could get as fine an education as anywhere in America. "I won't concede to any school, regardless of the name of the school," he said. "We've got 134 years of celebrating, of acknowledging the African-American experience in this nation, if it comes down to that."

By way of proof, he pointed to Carla Joy Peterman, class of '99.

Ms. Peterman was accepted at Yale, but chose Howard for the financial aid it offered. Once there, she found that Howard's perspective reflected its and her identity. When she took European history, Ms. Peterman learned about the role of blacks in Dutch colonies. Studying ecology, she conducted a student survey and discovered that Howard students thought of the environment in terms of social justice and pollution of local rivers, while for white students she contacted at other universities, environmental concerns involved more remote issues like the rain forest and global warming.

When Ms. Peterman was named a Rhodes Scholar, the second in Howard's history, Mr. Swygert put out a postcard featuring her in a Howard T-shirt.

"It shows you can go to a black college and still compete with anybody, from any college," Ms. Peterman said.

Mr. Waters, who hopes to become a Christian youth counselor, remained undecided after talking with the president. He was flattered by the call, and by the follow-up letter from Mayor Johnson. But the banner of Georgetown University, glimpsed in his guidance counselor's office as a freshman, had somehow dug its way into Damian Waters's heart.

Then he named the places he was considering attending next year. "Georgetown, Fordham, Valparaiso, New York University," he said. And then the star senior paused.

"And Howard," he said.

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