Historically black colleges get creative to raise enrollment

On billboards and funny pages, historically black colleges get creative in raising cash

By Tim Whitmire ~ The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- People driving around Charlotte have been getting an eyeful of Elizabeth City State University, a small, historically black school on the other side of the state.

Despite being six hours away from Charlotte, the school is running billboards in the city touting Elizabeth City State as "Your Place to Succeed."

Other schools are running comic strips and signing up celebrities for their promotions -- part of a national trend that has seen historically black colleges turn to unconventional, aggressive advertising to boost enrollment and endowments. The colleges say such creativity is necessary at a time of deficits and dwindling corporate and foundation support.

"The times are simply extremely challenging for any institution," said Johnnetta Cole, president of all-female Bennett College in Greensboro and former president of Spelman College in Atlanta.

Tola Thompson, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, said a new generation of black college presidents have emerged "who are not afraid to work hard, have fun and ask for money."

"In addition to having the quality education part, they can be backslappers and while they are slapping you on the back they'll say, 'How about writing a check?"'

Bennett College, mired in a $2 million budget deficit when Cole took over a year ago, scored a coup last month by recruiting Bob Dole to help kick off its $50 million fund-raising campaign.

The former Kansas senator and 1996 Republican presidential candidate got involved in Bennett through his wife, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who became concerned about the school during a campaign visit last year.

In western North Carolina, drivers in Charlotte have been getting an eyeful of Elizabeth City State University in the form of billboards and television advertising.

"Regionally, we're in a place where there are not a lot of corporations or industry," marketing director Marsha McLean said. "We don't have the luxury of having corporations in the neighborhood that are willing to be a sponsor or adopt you as a university."

North Carolina A&T, long a leading black institution with a top engineering program, has turned to the funny pages.

The "Aggie Life" strip, which has run since January as an ad on the front of the local newspaper's Sunday comics section, recently tapped into the popularity of "Drumline" -- a movie from last winter about college marching bands. The film was set at predominantly black, fictional school.

In the strip, a young black couple leaves a movie theater and the man says, "Wish I could find a school where I could get a great education and jam in a big marching band."

"I knew we had something in common," his female companion responds. "That's why I'm going to North Carolina A&T State University."

The Greensboro school does not face the same challenges as colleges like Bennett or Atlanta's Morris Brown, where financial problems have threatened accreditation. But it has joined nearly every black school by emphasizing marketing and fund-raising.

A&T faculty members are required to meet regularly with private-sector contacts to foster fund-raising. And beginning this fall, the school will hire undergrads for a "student development foundation" that will raise money from students from the moment they arrive on campus.

"That's part of developing the culture of giving from a young age," said David Hoard, A&T's vice chancellor for development.

Bennett's Cole said black schools face different fund-raising challenges than other colleges.

"Yeah, Harvard ought to be getting all of those millions and billions. ... Their alumni are capable of giving at that level," she said. "For (historically black schools), our alumni are not yet at that level of affluency."

On the Net:

N.C. A&T: http://www.ncat.edu

Elizabeth City State: http://www.ecsu.edu/

Bennett College for Women: http://www.bennett.edu/

National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: http://www.nafeo.org/