quote:When prospective college student Jessica Page trundled off to Hampton University in March, she'd considered the visit a formality. She'd already made up her mind to attend the waterside school, considered by many a jewel among the nation's historically black institutions.
Then she saw the campus.
The dorms weren't as sleek as she'd pictured. Buildings seemed antiquated. Was this "The Real HU" she'd heard about?
"I wasn't impressed," said Page, who later enrolled at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "Hampton was my number one choice -- until I visited."
Page is part of a steady trickle of talented black youths slipping away from the nation's most prestigious black schools.
Experts say aging campuses are one reason. Dwindling prestige, changes in what black students value and increasing competition from white educational powerhouses provide other clues.
The resulting exodus has left some black schools struggling to market themselves to youth who don't feel as duty-bound to the colleges as their parents before them.
"The issue for black colleges is not, in my view, that there are not enough students to go around," explained Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund. "(But) those students have a lot more choices and those students are being careful and more selective than ever before."
There are 103 historically black colleges and universities -- or HBCUs -- across the nation. Clustered mostly in the South, they were largely funded during the Reconstruction by wealthy whites as an alternative to universities that had shut out blacks.
The institutions have curried favor with black students for generations, valued as much for their unique campus traditions and family-like environment as for their skill at grooming the nation's black intellectual elite.
But data suggest the attraction is waning.
Total college enrollment of black men and women ages 18 to 24 has increased from 15 percent in 1970 to roughly 25 percent in 2003. The number of black students enrolling in HBCUs has slowly increased, too, from 190,305 in 1976 to more than 230,000 in 2001.
But the percentage of black college students choosing an HBCU has been drifting downward, from 18.4 percent in 1976 to 12.9 percent in 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Education's most recent figures available.
Twenty-six of 87 HBCUs profiled by the department recorded enrollment declines between 1995 and 2004.
Alabama's Talladega College topped the list, losing nearly 54 percent of its students. The University of the District of Columbia, which boasted 9,663 students in 1995, had 5,168 in 2004.
More troubling are the names of those foundering in recent years, black powerhouses like Fisk, Tuskegee and Bennett, revered as the "Vassar of the South."
That school had a $2 million budget deficit when the former president of Atlanta's Spelman College, Johnetta Cole, arrived in 2002.
Experts point to an expanding black middle class and the continuing effort of predominantly white -- and often elite -- schools to diversify enrollment. Lacking affirmative action programs that have been questioned on constitutional grounds, colleges and universities have worked hard to attract and keep black students.
At Virginia, for instance, a peer advisory program pairs incoming black students with black upperclassmen for guidance. Last year, the school expanded Access UVA, a financial aid program. And when black students matriculate, they're presented a stole of bright African cloth in a ceremony called the "Donning of the Kente."
Valerie Gregory, director of outreach at the Charlottesville school, is a Hampton graduate. She's seeing more students like her daughter -- heady black youths who don't feel like they must be surrounded by other blacks to be successful.
"Students are more apt to want to be in an integrated environment and now aren't as shy to look and see if there's a possibility," said Gregory, whose high schooler is weighing mostly white James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley against Spelman.
Lomax, of the United Negro College Fund, said black parents are interested in degrees from schools with universal clout -- and schools where their children will receive the support to graduate.
At Virginia State University, for instance, only 40 percent of eligible black students graduated in 2005. U.Va. graduates 86 percent of its black students, on average.
Mindful of enrollment erosion, HBCUs are trying new strategies, stepping up marketing and building on reputations in specialty majors.
Lomax's group, which gives scholarships to students attending 39 private historically black colleges, recently initiated the Institute for Capacity Building, a program that will help schools build funds, shore up academic gaps and improve recruitment. The idea is to help schools identify strengths, then make those programs airtight and promote them heavily, he said.
The group is encouraging schools to take recruitment beyond bordering states and into territory like the Midwest, where culturally isolated blacks may be receptive to an HBCU, Lomax said.
At Virginia Union, a small private school a few blocks from predominantly white Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, administrators have tapped black students in New York, Connecticut and other northern markets, said Gil Powell, director of admissions.
"We've been doing it here at Virginia Union for years," said Powell, who credited that, as well as the school's cozy environment, with gaining students who might otherwise be dazzled by VCU. The school saw a 26 percent increase in enrollment from 1995 to 2004.
Hampton also touts smaller class sizes -- 1,200 entered as freshman this fall -- as well as two new dorms and a student center built within the last year.
Kassie Freeman is a dean at Maine's Bowdoin College and author of the book "African Americans and College Choice." She says black schools have been missing out on prime students by focusing too much on mining black high schools for freshmen.
Those students are typically ready for a more diverse environment.
"It's just the reverse with students who are attending predominantly white schools," she said. "They would much rather go to an environment where they can find their roots."
At Norfolk State University, a perfect storm of administrative and academic changes began claiming students in 1994, when federal officials began requiring a minimum 800 SAT score.
By fall 1995, the school had lost nearly 3,000 students.
Now administrators are building Norfolk State's name in optical engineering, criminal justice and material science and reaching into new markets.
The school is recruiting in Illinois, Colorado and even Oregon, including Asian and Latino students in their appeals, and has kicked off a campaign aimed at building scholarship funds.
"By 2012, we're on a track for 8,000 students," said Terricita Sass, associate vice president for enrollment management. "We're in the infancy stage of what I call the renaissance period."