Color Blind at Schools That Aren't

Like most university recruiters who target Hispanic students, Christina Diaz crisscrosses the country, attending college fairs and chatting up potential applicants. Except in her case, there's a twist: she represents Grambling State University, a 107-year-old historically black college in Louisiana. And she's no anomaly. Other traditionally black institutions such as North Carolina A&T and Central State University in Ohio have also ramped up their Latino outreach. According to National Hispanic College Fairs, which organizes events at 50 locations nationwide, historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, now represent about 13 percent of participants, compared with virtually zero 10 years ago. Though Latinos account for only 2 percent of students at HBCUs, they're the fastest-growing group at some institutions.

What explains the increase? HBCUs are increasingly losing African-American students to mainstream universities. And outside the top tier of black higher education—places like Howard University and Spelman College—many HBCUs find themselves in dire financial straits. To survive, some are reaching out beyond their traditional base. "Schools that once had as their mission a need to educate the newly free [are] now expanding their mission into the 21st century," says Robert Dixon, Grambling's provost and vice president for academic affairs. Already, the school, whose enrollment is 4,700, has sought to broaden its appeal to white students by expanding its nursing and mass-communications departments. Now, with an eye on the fast-growing Hispanic population, it's considering Latino studies.

Some HBCU alumni worry that such changes dilute the heritage of black colleges. "They believe the school should look the same as when they were students," says Dixon. But "the way one begins doesn't have to determine the future." At Grambling, where the number of Hispanic applicants has increased from 33 in 2006 to 53 and counting this year, the Latino students seem to be blending in fine. "I had some butterflies" at first, says sophomore Brian Bustos. But he says he gets along well with his black suitemates; he exposes them to Colombian cumbia tunes, while they turn him on to the latest tracks in underground hip-hop. David Myers Jr., a black freshman, welcomes the new influx. "I believe it will make Grambling stronger," he says. For some historically black schools, it could make them survivors.