ATLANTA (Reuters) - Black colleges in the United States are reeling from the impact of a recession that has hit their funding and are struggling to retain poor and middle income students.
The big government economic stimulus package President Barack Obama is expected to sign on Tuesday could provide some relief in a downturn that is hurting dozens of small, private universities set up for African Americans that lack big endowments and rely on tuition fees.
The colleges are a legacy of a past era when black students were barred from white-dominated higher education. Although the country now has its first black president in Obama, these institutions still play a valuable role, educators and politicians say.
Many U.S. universities have been affected by the recession, which has eroded state and private funding for education. But a majority of students at black colleges come from low- or middle-income families, making them and their schools more vulnerable to the economic squeeze.
As it bites, students struggle to get loans and scholarships, and the colleges struggle to pay bills.
"All the trends are bad right now," said Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for 39 of the 103 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States.
In a dramatic example, Clark Atlanta University laid off 70 of its 229 full-time faculty members and consolidated classes in its arts and science school last week when 300 students out of an enrollment of about 4,000 failed to return for the spring semester because of cost.
"Ninety-eight percent of our students require financial aid. As that became less accessible, increasingly our students have found they were unable to return," said spokeswoman Jennifer Jiles.
As it stands, the $787 billion stimulus bill includes money to make an "incredible difference" to HBCUs, said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
It would include more than $800 million for infrastructure projects on HBCU campuses and $500 million over two years for improvements in technology as well as increased federal grants for students from low-income families, she said.
"We want to make it possible for low-income, first-generation students (whose parents did not go to college) to be in the market to drive and stimulate the economy. That's what our institutions have traditionally done," Baskerville said.
To an outsider, the range and number of higher education establishments in the United States can appear bewildering. Outside the ranks of famous Ivy League schools and the huge state universities, the country is dotted with hundreds of private institutions, many tiny, some obscure.
The same is true for historically black colleges. Such schools range from places with a national reputation such as the all-female Spelman College in Atlanta to rural universities catering to just a few hundred students.
Spelman announced this week it would reduce its operating budget by $4.8 million, including the elimination of 12 vacant and 23 existing positions, because of a 3 percent drop in enrollment and a decrease in endowment earnings.
HBCUs enroll 14 percent of African American students but constitute only 3 percent of America's 4,084 institutions of higher education, according to government figures.
Many boast a tradition of promoting black leadership: civil rights leader Martin Luther King and film maker Spike Lee attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Educator Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1881 and prominent agriculturalist George Washington Carver set up its agricultural school.
In contrast, Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York, neither an HBCU.
Since segregation was banned in the 1960s, the black schools have diversified. Many have multiracial faculties and go out of their way to attract non-black students.
West Virginia State University is classed as an HBCU, though its student body is mainly white.
The 47 state-run HBCU's and six law schools are in the same boat as other state colleges, forced to cut costs and delay capital projects, said Dwayne Ashley, chief executive of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which funds students at state HBCU's.
While it is unlikely a university would be set up in contemporary America with a mission to educate a single ethnic group, HBCUs have attracted support from successive governments and are stoutly defended by their leaders.
Spelman president Beverly Tatum said there were advantages for black female students in attending a college that was designed especially with their needs in mind. A measure of the attraction to students was that 6,000 applicants competed for 525 Spelman places this academic year, she said.
Ashley said HBCUs provided a "nurturing environment".
"They are the epicenter of activity in the communities in which they are located. If you strengthen them, you strengthen the community and spur growth," said Baskerville.
Few cite racial solidarity as a key attraction, perhaps fearing accusations over political correctness. But many students say they chose an HBCU partly to be among other African Americans after attending racially mixed high schools.
"I wanted to go to a black college to reach out to my roots and follow tradition," said Marques Jenkins, 23, a psychology student who came to Clark Atlanta from California.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara