Separate Is Not Equal; Black Colleges Sue State

Students and former officials are suing Maryland for not adequately funding the state's four historically black colleges and universities. The plaintiffs charge that the state has essentially maintained two separate systems of higher education, and has duplicated programs in order to make it easier for white students to avoid attending black universities.

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Students and alumni of Maryland's four historically black colleges are suing state officials. They say these state-funded schools are starved for resources, while traditionally white schools continue to expand.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the suit is part of a decades-long effort by historically black colleges to catch up to their peers.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Muriel Thompson is a Ph.D. student at Morgan State University, a historically black school in Baltimore that goes back over 100 years. She's 57 and she can remember when she was growing up, African-Americans felt a cultural calling to attend legendary colleges like Morgan State. So getting admitted to a graduate program here five years ago was a dream come true.

Ms. MURIEL THOMPSON (Graduate Student, Morgan State University): I was really quite thrilled at the thought of finally going to one of the renowned HBCUs in this country.

ABRAMSON: But when she got here in 2005 to study community college leadership, she found this historic campus is falling apart.

(Soundbite of conversations)

ABRAMSON: She takes me to the bursar's office, a dank tomb of a building that one security guard jokingly referred to as the Asbestos Palace. In a case of too little too late, workers are wearily replacing old linoleum, as well as a carpet that depends heavily on duct tape for its survival.

Ms. THOMPSON: This is where students and family and everybody comes when they first enroll in the college. We're not welcome...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. THOMPSON: ...you know, I mean, it's just...

ABRAMSON: Thompson says the rundown facilities are just one reason she became a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state demanding more funding. She's also studied at traditionally white campuses in Maryland. There, students cross lush green lawns instead of the tired weed-ridden quad that is at the center of Morgan's campus. This is why she says young people like her son can't imagine going to a historically black college.

Ms. THOMPSON: His generation feels that those who can do, and those who can't attend an HBCU. And he is adamantly opposed to attending an HBCU, because he does not feel as though he'll get the quality of education that he could get in another type of institution.

ABRAMSON: When desegregation became the law of the land in the 1950s, states came up with ways to keep white students and faculty away from largely black schools. They offered duplicate programs to those at HBCUs. The Maryland suit says the state has used this tactic, duplicating, for example, an MBA program that was already offered at Morgan State.

Attorney Michael Jones, who's representing the plaintiffs, says in 1992, the Supreme Court found that approach was unconstitutional and said states had to give HBCUs a chance.

Mr. MICHAEL JONES (Plaintiff's Attorney): To have programs that are unique and that can be appealing to students regardless of race, and that are not duplicated at a traditionally white school.

ABRAMSON: The State of Maryland would not comment on the lawsuit. In court documents the state argues it has fulfilled its obligation to dismantle the legal segregation of the past. The state says the Supreme Court does not require the state to make these school's successful.

Some observers say many of the nation's 105 HBCUs suffer from a vicious cycle.

MaryBeth Gaspin, at the University of Pennsylvania, says without the funds needed to nurture flagship programs, these schools cannot attract corporate money or foundation grants.

Professor MARYBETH GASMAN (Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania): You can attract foundation support, grants from the federal government. You can get corporate sponsorships. You can get internships for the students. One thing builds upon the other and it strengthens the overall institution.

ABRAMSON: Leaders of HBCUs in Maryland and elsewhere say funding problems contribute to low graduation rates. Today, only 32 percent of Morgan students graduate within six years.

Morgan State's new president, David Wilson, says since HBCUs are often educating the lowest income students, they need even more money to see that they succeed.

Dr. DAVID WILSON (President, Morgan State University): We are spending 16 percent of our operating budget - of the institution's operating budget - on financial aid to keep those students enrolled.

ABRAMSON: Others would say that low success rates at black colleges are not a reason to throw more money at them. The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that black students have higher success rates when they attend traditionally white colleges. The editorial argued that minority-serving institutions need a new mission, not more money, since black students now have a choice of schools.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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