Big Strides at Black B-Schools

Talent-seeking companies are helping cash-poor institutions

When Lucy J. Reuben took over as dean of the business school at South Carolina State University six years ago, enrollment at the black college was in an eight-year slide. The university had all but ignored the small business school in favor of its popular liberal arts programs, and corporate recruiters were scarce. But Reuben, an ex-finance professor at Duke and Florida A&M and executive at Ford Motor Co., was determined to turn things around. First on the list: win accreditation. It would be a ticket to respectability, and without it, serious fund-raising is difficult.

It also meant that a lot had to change on the Orangeburg campus. Reuben hired new faculty, beefed up classes, and used her personal Rolodex to form school ties with the corporate world. Over the next few years, Reuben was able to raise some money, including $1 million from the state legislature for improvements, such as renovating the B-school building. And in April, the school became South Carolina's first B-school program at a historically black college or university to be accredited. With that has come a better-prepared student body, a 25% enrollment increase, a more wired campus, high-quality jobs for students, and a new position dedicated to student services. "[Reuben] changed our mindset. We were no longer a country school in Orangeburg," says 1999 graduate David Tipton, now a financial analyst at papermaker Bowater Inc. "We were going to produce world business leaders."

READY POOL. South Carolina State is one of many black B-schools, mostly located in the South, undergoing something of a revival. Ever on the lookout for minority talent, corporate recruiters are knocking on these schools' doors, and a growing roster of blue chips is helping bring money to endowment-strapped institutions as well as donating services and arranging student internships. KPMG, Ford, Abbott Labs, Fannie Mae, and Bank of America have all signed up for some form of partnership. It's more than just good-deed-doing: Almost 40% of minority business students attend black B-schools, which translates into a ready pool of talent. Says Sandra Buchanan, manager of university relations for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.: "These schools are attracting high-quality minority candidates, so we need to be there."

Founded around the turn of the last century to educate minority students, black colleges for decades offered meager business programs, with courses such as typing and shorthand. That started to change largely in the early 1980s, when minority students began to find easier entry into the corporate ranks. Today, there are more than 80 black B-school programs, and they continue to provide a nurturing learning environment for minorities, enrolling more than 250,000 students. Whereas many majority, or mainly white, institutions have less than 10% African American undergrads, a mostly black school "allowed me to learn and get individual teaching in an environment that was more comfortable," says Torey Hammond, a South Carolina State alumnus.

Still, it has been difficult to overcome the legacy of second-class status. In the mid-1990s, the programs began to emerge from a nearly 15-year dry spell that saw several schools trim courses or shut down altogether. Before then, none of the 77 uncertified black business programs earned accreditation--a daunting process that can take five years and cost more than $50,000. Schools that were succeeding had few resources to market themselves to potential students or recruiters. Even today, "there's [state] money for survival, but there's often no money for excellence, for being competitive," says Quiester Craig, dean of the B-school at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, one of the first black B-schools to win accreditation in 1979.

NO E-MAIL. Indeed, the parent schools are notoriously underfunded, mostly relying on state appropriations, private foundations, and a trickle of corporate and alumni support. At majority schools, the big bucks that pay for fancy extras come from endowments, padded by successful alums. But black B-school grads don't move into high-paying positions at the same rate. So endowments are often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range, vs. sums averaging $16 million at mainstream schools. Shoestring budgets don't leave room for technology upgrades, recruitment, or marketing, says Melvin T. Stith, dean of Florida State University's B-school. "There are certain [schools] that don't have e-mail or voice mail," he says.

That's where Corporate America has quietly stepped in. Since the mid-1990s, when accreditation standards changed to include more schools, an outpouring of support from companies pushing diversity sent black B-schools on an improvement frenzy. KPMG Foundation has helped nearly a dozen earn accreditation since 1995, with money, mentoring, and plain old "encouragement," says Bernard J. Milano, head of the foundation and a board member of AACSB International, the main B-school accrediting body. "We cannot improve the diversity of Corporate America unless someone steps forward and helps these institutions," says Milano. As more companies discover black B-schools and commit time and money to their success, changing the complexion of the corporate world should get a whole lot easier.

By Jennifer Merritt in New York

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