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Learning to Get by at Cash-Strapped Black Colleges : Enrollment’s up at Southern University despite inadequate facilities. Self-reliance is key to survival, officials say.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When history major James Wilson uses the library at predominantly black Southern University here, he encounters a facility that has almost no computer technology, a skeletal support staff and a book collection that is more typical of a junior high school.

If Wilson gets hungry, there is no food--the college closed its only cafeteria last year because of budget cuts. He must sleep off campus because Southern has never had enough money to build dormitories for its students.

And in the classroom, even a basic item such as chalk is at a premium because the university can’t afford to buy enough of it.

“It gets demoralizing after a while,” said Wilson, 28, who is president of Southern’s Student Government Assn. “All of those little things . . . add up after a while. Everyone here--the faculty, the staff, the students--starts feeling defeated. Like there’s no reason to keep on trying.”

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But life at Southern is only going to get tougher: Tuition for undergraduate students has been raised by $200 a semester, from $728 to $928, and by $400 for out-of-state students, to $1,128. University officials say that even with the additional revenue, Southern will barely be able to tread water.

“I just don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t know anyone else around here who does either,” said Tolor White, vice president for business and finance at Southern. “All we’ve been doing these past few years is cutting back and cutting back some more, while at the same time we have to keep raising tuition fees. And that’s a lousy combination.”

Black colleges and universities around the nation historically have been underfunded. But the challenge for Southern is compounded because the budget for higher education often is reduced by state lawmakers looking for money to fund other projects.

“The big oil days were big days for us, too,” said Sammie Cosper, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education. “But when the bottom fell out for oil, it fell on us. In fact, it’s been so bad that we’ve gotten hit with about 15 major cuts in the past 11 years.”

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Despite the financial difficulties, enrollment at Louisiana’s colleges and universities has increased from about 119,000 in 1983 to just over 137,000 this year. Enrollment in the Southern University system, which has three central campuses in the state, is up from about 13,000 in 1983 to more than 16,000 today.

William H. Gray, president of the United Negro College Fund, says those numbers mirror a national trend.

“We have more students in black colleges than ever before in our history,” said Gray, noting that of the more than 1.1 million black students enrolled nationally, some 210,000 are studying at one of the more than 100 historically black institutions.

And out of that enrollment, more than 90% of the students need financial assistance. But Gray says both private and public support continues to lag.

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“State cutbacks hit public black colleges harder than they do majority institutions simply because the black colleges had less to begin with,” he said. “Private black colleges, on the other hand, don’t get anywhere near the kind of endowments that white schools get because we have alumni who aren’t making nearly the same amount of money in their careers as their white counterparts. It’s an endemic and systemic disadvantage.”

In response, the United Negro College Fund recently announced an effort to raise $250 million by the year 2000 to provide scholarships and money for tuition at predominantly black colleges.

“We have to take things into our own hands, like we always have,” Gray said. “The vast majority of public and private black colleges will manage. They just have to learn to do a lot with a little and be self-reliant.”

At the Southern University campus in New Orleans, an example of this self-reliance can be seen at a small table where “snowballs"--a local favorite composed of finely shaved ice flavored with different syrups--are sold.

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“We’ve never had a day care center here, even though we have an incredible number of students who are parents,” Wilson said. “So we’re raising money for one ourselves.”

With the snowball proceeds recently passing the $1,000 mark, Wilson added: “No one here will ever give up. We have to make this school work for our own selves, for our own people. It’s almost like a mission, something you have to believe in if you expect to survive.”


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