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Black colleges say it's too early to write them off, despite problems

Many Americans, including educators, ``are premature'' in writing off black colleges, says Henry Ponder, chairman of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), a consortium of 43 independent black colleges. Discussing efforts among some public officials and educators to reduce financial support of traditionally black colleges because higher education ``is integrated,'' Dr. Ponder said:

``We face the problems most colleges meet in this day of declining enrollments and reduced aid to students. But our mission -- education of minority students -- is still valid. . . .''

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Ponder knows black college problems firsthand, because he is also president of Fisk University in Nashville, one of the nation's best known black schools. That school barely escaped closing two years ago because of serious financial difficulties.

Fisk alumni have helped his administration reduce debts by more than 50 percent. ``We've taken our alma mater for granted so long that we've paid little attention to its survival in recent years,'' says Yolanda Spencer, president of the Boston Fisk Club.

Problems that troubled Fisk -- finances, declining enrollments, and small endowments -- are common to UNCF schools, says Ponder, who was among 43 UNCF college presidents who were in Boston recently for the fund's 41st annual meeting.

Founded in 1944 as a joint fund-raising effort, the UNCF has raised more than $400 million for member schools. Last year's total was $35.6 million. In interviews several presidents described actions to supplement their UNCF support.

Tuskegee University changed its name from Tuskegee Institute ``to assure would-be donors that we are more than a technical school . . . ,'' said its president, Benjamin F. Payton.

``We have six colleges and a school, each fully accredited. Our veterinary college graduates 90 percent of the nation's black veterinarians, and attracts a 30 percent white student body.'' Dr. Payton says Tuskegee has increased its endowment to $25 million, the largest among UNCF member schools.

UNCF schools are taking action to improve their status:

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Strengthening faculties: Last spring the Pew Memorial Trust granted $900,000 to 45 black colleges to develop more black PhD candidates and strengthen their faculties. The UNCF administers these funds that go to the 43 UNCF schools and to Hampton Unviversity and Howard University. They help the schools face two nagging problems -- a 15 percent drop in blacks enrolled in graduate schools and a salary gap of 33 percent below the national average for UNCF faculty members, says the UNCF.

Innovation: Bishop College of Dallas, has created a new degree, bachelor of technology, in a joint program (two years in each school) with a public community college, Dallas County Technical Institute. This project helped Bishop resolve the payment of a $12.5 million debt and to update its academic program.

Also in Texas three small black colleges -- Houston-Tillotson in Austin, Texas College in Tyler, and Wiley in Marshall -- are exploring a merger into a single campus based in Austin or Houston.

``We can convert three struggling schools into one strong black college that can offer more to its students, says John Q. Taylor King, president of Houston-Tillotson.

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