In the 115 years of its existence, Bowie State College has been well-known as a "black school" to the black communities of Baltimore, Prince George's County and Washington, but it was barely on the map as far as the surrounding white community was concerned.

The college was stuck away in a remote corner of Prince George's between the Patuxent River and the railroad tracks, a location similar to that of many post-Civil War teachers' colleges bent on the "uplift of Negroes," according to one Bowie administrator.

"Bowie, like any traditionally black institution, was put over by the railroad tracks, hidden in the woods to keep the black folks out of sight," said public information officer Johnnie Moore. "But, lo and behold, (now) the community is coming to us."

Since the early 1970s members of the overwhelmingly white communities surrounding the 186-acre campus have discovered that the school is a convenient, moderately priced source of higher education. And Bowie has discovered that it needs them to stay above water in the competition for students among small colleges.

Bowie, like all of Maryland's state-run schools, has been trying to meet federally mandated desegregation goals. And like all but three of the 11 campuses attempting to reach the goals set in 1974, it has failed badly in terms of full-time undergraduates.

Bowies's goal, called "unrealistic" by President Rufus Barfield, called for whites to make up 49 to 50 percent of the undergraduate enrollment by 1980. This year only 11 percent of the full-time undergraduates are white.

The desegregation plan for 1985, recently approved by the State Board of Higher Education, calls for 29 percent of the full-time undergraduate freshmen to be white. Barfield called that number "quite aggressive" too. But when part-time and graduate students, who comprise 53 percent of Bowie's total enrollment of 2,756 students, are taken into account, the school becomes 32 percent white.

By the numbers, this gives Bowie "the best racial mix in the state," according to public information officer Moore. But the same numbers show a core of younger black undergraduates who fill 99 percent of approximately 600 beds in on-campus housing surrounded by a growing evening, weekend and graduate program that is 52 percent white.

"You go to dinner and you come back and it's entirely different," said student Denise Kesel, referring to the change in the racial mixture around sundown. "It's like a wave going over the sand," added Kesel, one of only four whites who live on the campus.

When the 1974 desegregation plan was adopted. Bowie expected to more than double its 1973 full-time undergraduate enrollment of 1,718 by taking in 1,000 more blacks and 1,300 whites. But with the passing of the "baby boom" generation through college and the loss of potential black students to increasingly integrated, predominantly white schools, Bowie's full-time population has declined precipitously to 1,292 students.

One of the main roadblocks to growth has been an acute shortage of dormitory space, according to Barfield. This year the college turned down more than 200 student requests for rooms. Because of a rule restricting housing to students who live more than 25 miles from the campus, many college-bound white students from the immediate area opt for the University of Maryland campuses to get the full measure of campus life.

Meanwhile the fastest growth in Bowie enrollment, in line with national trends, has been among older, part-time undergraduates and graduate students returning to school. According to Moore, this student typically is a middle-class housewife from Bowie or Laurel hoping to move into the mainstream of the working world.

The average age of a Bowie undergraduate is 26.

Bowie offers the advanced teaching certificates and master's degrees required of Prince George's public school teachers, another source of older, part-time students. Since its first degree program was approved in 1970, the Graduate College has expanded to 11 areas of concentration in education, psychology and administration science.

Moreover, many of the part-time, graduate and continuing education courses are offered at "satellite" sites at Andrews Air Force Base, Fort Meade, Greenbelt and other locations convenient to the residential areas in a 30-mile radius of the school.

"In order for this institution to increase its enrollment we must focus on the commuter student, because they don't require housing," said Barfield, who came to the school in 1978.

"Thus let us face reality -- we are looking to the white community. As we recruit commuter students we will invariably recruit white students," said Barfield.

Helen Crutchley, 28, is perhaps typical of the fastest-growing component of the Bowie student body. The Anapolis resident received an associate degree in medical technology from a community college in 1975 but in 1977 she lost her job as a service representative for a Rockville pharmaceutical company for lack of a four-year degree.

She signed up for a Saturday course in psychology that was advertised in one of the fliers with which the college saturates the community and decided to matriculate full-time in 1978. When she took her first course she did not know it was a predominantly black school.

"I was a little apprehensive, not because it was a black school but because I'm so much older (than the other students)," said Crutchley, now a junior biology major. Raised in a small Eastern Shore community, Crutchley said she had never sat in a classroom with blacks before she came to Bowie.

"Everybody thinks about being a minority when you're not used to being one," she said of the feeling of white students on campus. "Relatives said, 'Don't go there at night,' and asked, 'Aren't you afraid?' but I got over it real easy -- like after my second class," she said.

Except for some underlying resentment she perceived when dealing with the school's financial aid office, Crutchley gave Bowie high marks for fulfilling her educational needs.

"I'm getting one of the best educations money can buy. The classes are small and the instructors are available when I need them. I don't think I could get this education at (predominantly white) Towson (State College) or (the University of) Maryland," she said.

The trend toward white students had raised fears among some black students about the loss of Bowie's historic character as a black institution. The fear is sharpened by the fact that after many years of neglect, the state has completed construction of $24.5 million worth of new buildings on the campus, part of a $47 million program begun in 1971. But Barfield said schools like Bowie will never want for black students because these students know that black schools are the backbone of higher education for blacks.

Paraphrasing a recent speech by Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler, he said, "Presently the historically black institution enrolls 30 percent of all blacks going to college but it graduates 70 percent of all blacks graduating."