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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Historically, black colleges and universities offer African American students a chance to bypass some of the pressures of predominantly white schools. But the percentage of black students who attend all black institutions is on the decline. As part of our series on alternatives to the college admissions game, NPR's Audie Cornish sat down with four black students at a national high school to talk about college, race and their futures.

AUDIE CORNISH: For students like Jewel Burks, choosing a college can end up a choice between black and white.

Ms. JEWEL BURKS (High school student): If you go to a white school and (unintelligible) black people. People put that on you. They'll make that your burden, to be the face of black people. So if you mess up, oh, that's how black people are. You know, that kind of thing. But at a (unintelligible) black college, you don't have to worry about that.

CORNISH: I found Burks at Hume-Fogg Academic High, one of Nashville's top magnet schools, where she's a star of the student council and heads a laundry list of numerous clubs.

We sat down with three of her friends, girls who had been among the handful of brown faces in her AP Honors classes over the years. Pha'lesa Patton, Aleesa Mann, and Keziah Tetteh are applying to a mix of Ivy League universities, traditionally black colleges and local schools like Middle Tennessee State University.

Unidentified Female: I'm applying to Howard, Hampton…

Unidentified Female #2: I'm applying to Fisk, NCSU and Lake Forest.

Unidentified Female #3: NCSU, Fisk, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Howard, Hampton, Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

CORNISH: None of the girls have trouble fitting in. Tetteh is in the orchestra. Mann is on the track team. And Patton's perky smile and blue and grey sweats give her away as a cheerleader. But Patton says she's had enough of being the minority in class after class.

Ms. PATTON: At a predominantly white school, black students usually tend to fall into stereotypes, like every black person (unintelligible). Like here, everybody is in the African-American studies club, not because they really want to be in the club, just because that's where all the black people are.

CORNISH: Particularly in the South, there are all kinds of historically black colleges and universities to choose from. From legendary schools like Howard in Washington, D.C. to popular Atlanta colleges such as Morehouse and Spelman. Fisk University here in Nashville was a training ground for civil rights activists.

So while HBCUs, as they're called, make up just three percent of all colleges and universities, they graduate nearly a third of all black undergrads.

Jewel Burks says she never doubted plans to go to Virginia's highly regarded HBCU, Hampton University.

Ms. BURKS: In my family, Hampton is like, you know, that's the best school you can go to, you know? But when I am around people that are not from my background, and they ask me, where is that, what kind of school is that, it sort of made me think about it again.

CORNISH: With all things being equal in terms of academics, how important is it to enjoy a few years of not being in the minority?

Ms. PATTON: Do I want to go to a Columbia where any time I say it to anyone, they're going to know what I'm talking about? Or do I want to do what I feel is best for me?

Ms. BURKS: In reality, we all have to work hard because we are African Americans and that's just the truth, and if you go to regular school, you don't experience that.

CORNISH: Keziah Tetteh says her dad has warned her that as a black professional she will always be in the minority, so she better get used to it. She's planning to go to the mostly white Lake Forest College outside Chicago.

Ms. TETTEH: At an HBCU, even though you will have contact with people of different races, it won't be the reality that will really be in the work world when you get there.

CORNISH: Aleesa Mann says her parents have offered her visions from both worlds. They're Vanderbilt graduates, but her father is now a professor at Fisk. Her mom says she wants Aleesa to do what's best for her career, but admits she and her husband feel little connection to Vanderbilt and had few friends there.

But that's not the only thing Mann is taking into consideration.

Ms. MANN: But really, I don't think people don't understand that HBCUs are not just about being all black. You know, it wasn't always easy for us to get an education somewhere. So I don't think people understand how important an HBCU is. It's not just about your friends or a social life. It's a history.

CORNISH: None of the girls are worried about getting accepted at the schools they've chosen. White colleges and universities are leaning less and less on affirmative action, so they're hungry for top minority candidates like these young women. Aleesa Mann, Keziah Tetteh, Pha'lesa Patton and Jewel Burks now get to decide whether all those famous ivy-covered schools are the right choice for them.

Audie Cornish, NPR News. Nashville.

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