Natalie Norton sits alone in a Towson University student cafeteria. The pre-med freshman from Silver Spring hasn't made any close friends yet, and many of her high school buddies now attend nearby Morgan State University, a historically black college.
"I would have preferred to go to Morgan," says Norton, who is African-American. "But I didn't even apply because my grades were really good." Attending a mostly black school would have been "more fun," she adds with a wistful smile. "But academics-wise, they're not as strict. It looks a lot better if you graduate from a majority-white school."
Norton's decision - and the disquieting rationale behind it - represents one of the biggest challenges facing Maryland's four black colleges, experts say, and sheds a light on their recent struggles.
At the direction of federal officials, the state has targeted about $400 million to the long-underfunded black campuses since 2001, in an effort to atone for a racist past and eliminate any remaining vestiges of segregation. The spending was part of the latest desegregation plan required by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
The ultimate goal: to make the colleges "comparable and competitive" with majority-white schools in "all facets of their operations and programs," according to the plan.
But during a period of big investment, Maryland's black colleges have experienced troubling declines in traditional measures of academic performance. And despite a series of federal desegregation plans stretching back to the 1960s, the four schools - Morgan State University and Coppin State University in Baltimore, Bowie State University in Prince George's County and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore - remain in a distinct second tier in the state's higher education system:
Only 38 percent of freshmen at Maryland's black colleges graduate within six years from any state campus - about half the 71 percent graduation rate at the state's majority-white schools, according to an analysis done by Maryland's higher education agency at The Sun's request.
Graduation rates at three of the four black colleges are lower today than when the most recent desegregation effort began. At Coppin, only 21 percent of freshmen who enrolled in 2001 graduated within six years from any state institution. Even at Morgan, the only campus where the graduation rate has inched higher, it was just 42 percent in 2006.
The average SAT score of African-American students at Maryland's black colleges is 778 out of 1600 - about 300 points lower on average than the scores of black students who attend traditionally white schools, according to state data on Maryland high school graduates.
More students are enrolling in the state's black colleges, but more are also dropping out. Second-year retention rates at UMES, for instance, have steadily declined in recent years. In 2006, nearly a third of students didn't return for their sophomore year.
A shrinking minority of white students are enrolling in black colleges in Maryland, though the funding initiative was based on the assumption that the schools would become more competitive and therefore more diverse. At Bowie, the percentage of white students on campus has dropped from 14 percent in 2000 to just 6 percent in 2006. The percentages of whites at the other schools range from 2.5 percent at Morgan to 11 percent at UMES.
Meanwhile, about 45 percent of Maryland's African-American undergraduates are enrolled at majority-white colleges - and they have made notable progress in the past six years. At all but one such campus, the gap in graduation rates between black students and all students has significantly narrowed or been eliminated altogether.
State education officials say it is too soon to expect recent investments in black colleges to show up in academic statistics. Moreover, they argue that the bleak picture such data depict is fundamentally misleading, given the colleges' mission of opening the doors of higher education to disadvantaged students.
"The question is: Are these institutions serving our state well?" said university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan. "And I would say, absolutely they are. They don't graduate [students] at the rate we want them to, but they are giving educational opportunity to thousands of students from low-income families whose test scores on average are at the lowest end of the scale."
Nationally, the graduation rate at historically black colleges was about 37 percent in 2004, according to the most recent Department of Education statistics. At traditionally white institutions, 54 percent of undergraduates received a degree within six years.