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Administrators at Fisk University are trying to sell part of its art collection to keep the school open. But the sale is held up in court until at least February. Yesterday, the school got some good news in the form of a $10,000 donation from a local Baptist church. Before the donation, the historically black university anticipated shutting down next month.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER: Finances on the campus of Fisk University have just gone from bad to worse.

Ms. MIA CAREY LONG(ph) (Senior, Fisk University): Pray for yourself that you might be able to focus through our difficult problems. Pray for our leaders that they might be able to sustain our school.

FARMER: Fisk senior Mia Carey Long(ph) organized this prayer vigil on the weathered stone steps of Jubilee Hall after learning just how bad finances have gotten. The endowment was rated in 2002. The university is losing $4 million a year to stay open, and the lines of credit are all used up. Every building on campus has been mortgaged. Only 25 students of the 800 on campus showed up for Long's vigil. She says many see it as merely another hard time in the history of Fisk.

Ms. LONG: And we always make it through.

FARMER: By now, school officials had hoped to have $30 million from a deal with a museum backed by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. The two would share the university's famed art collection donated by Georgia O'Keeffe, which sits in storage now.

While some Fisk alumni grumble over the selling off of a bequest, university president Hazel O'Leary says the capital campaign alone can't reverse years of losses. That, she says, if the market for students grows increasingly competitive.

Ms. HAZEL O'LEARY (President, Fisk University): Every bright, young African-American student has an opportunity to go to many schools. Some places they get full rides and a computer. So we are competing for the best and the brightest.

FARMER: For HBCUs, or Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to compete with traditionally white schools who've reached out to minority students, many have lowered tuition, says Lynn Huntley, president of the Southern Education Foundation.

Ms. LYNN HUNTLEY (President, Southern Education Foundation): They have been able to provide quality education at, relatively speaking, much lower cost than their affluent counterparts. But in so doing, they have put themselves in a fragile economic condition.

FARMER: Even with its financial troubles, Fisk has remained one of the country's top ranked HBCUs alongside Spellman and Hampton, who are near the top of the heap financially. Of the country's 114 HBCUs, the list of schools in financial trouble continues to add names. LeMoyne-Owen of Memphis threatened to shutdown earlier this year. Florida A&M was put on probation by the accreditation body this summer over questions of mismanagement. Just last month, Clark Atlanta began implementing cost-saving measures because of a dip in enrolment.

Claude Pressnell, who is president of the organization that represents Tennessee's private colleges, called the financial decline of HBCUs a crisis.

Dr. CLAUDE PRESSNELL (President, Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association): Because they're still producing more degrees among minority students than any other sector in higher education.

FARMER: Though they enroll 18 percent of the African-Americans in college, HBCUs account for 30 percent of the country's African-American college graduates each year.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Where Fisk, our alma mater, stands majestic dear old gold and blue.

FARMER: For those HBCU graduates who sing the Fisk Alma Mater, it will take more than a campus vigil to turn the tide. Fisk administrators are looking at December 15th and waiting for a lifeline.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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