It was not too many years ago that Howard University dominated any discussion about the top black institutions in higher education.

Today, more black high school students apply to Hampton University than to Howard. The freshman class at Atlanta's Spelman College scores higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than does Howard's. Morehouse College, also in Atlanta, points to graduates in three high-ranking positions in the Bush administration.

Howard's long-held title as the premier institution of black higher education is being challenged, as its market gets more competitive.

Last week, Howard completed the first phase of an effort to retake the high ground.

The Howard University Commission's 250-page report, recommending that the school raise admissions standards and emphasize research, aims at reestablishing Howard in a way that "clearly and unambiguously distinguishes it" from other historically black colleges and universities.

"We have made the decision to play big-time ball," said Franklyn G. Jenifer, who appointed the commission soon after he became Howard's president in April. "It is going to be difficult for us to get into shape to do it."

Interviews with students, faculty and education experts pointed out some of the obstacles facing Jenifer as he directs Howard into the next century.

Elected student leaders, who like faculty, staff and alumni will have an opportunity to respond to the report, have raised concerns about the recommendation to require a minimum score of 1,000 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test for incoming freshmen.

Students said they are most concerned about the recommendation to reorganize the College of Liberal Arts in ways they said would strengthen Eurocentric values at the expense of the drive for a more African-oriented curriculum.

"That's a direct confrontation with what Howard University's mission should be," said April Silver, president of the Howard University Student Association, the undergraduate student governing body.

Taft Broome Jr., chairman of the University Senate and a member of the commission, said he has concerns about why there has been no debate on what kind of university Howard should become.

Broome and other faculty said that focusing on research might be the proper role for Howard. "But we need to talk about it," Broome said. "We can't just say this is how it should be and then set out to do it in a few months."

Students, faculty, administrators and alumini will have until the end of the year to comment on the commission's report. The commission may modify its recommendations before sending a final report to Jenifer next month. The president will present his recommendations to the board of trustees in February.

The self-study at Howard was conducted to ensure a prominent position for Howard in the future, when blacks may no longer be the dominant minority group in the nation.

The commission report said Howard should emphasize science and technology research in particular, raise admissions standards for undergraduates and develop institutes for studying the affairs of Latino, Asian and Islamic nations.

The report also said Howard should end the university's weaker programs, admit fewer students who need developmental or remedial classes and offer early retirement to 25 percent of the medical school staff -- all of its tenured faculty.

At stake for Howard is its long-standing special relationship with Congress, in which Howard -- a private institution founded to educate newly freed slaves -- receives about 60 percent of its budget from the federal government.

Justifying a large appropriation from Congress -- $195 million for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 -- will be harder in the future as other historically black colleges begin to catch up with Howard in academics and as predominantly white institutions recruit black students.

The signs that Howard is sharing the mantle are apparent.

Three thousand more black high school students applied for admission to Hampton University in Virginia than to Howard University last year. "We received almost 9,000 applications in each of the last two years," said William R. Harvey, Hampton's president. "I think that tells you which school the kids think is the premier university."

Though the Howard Commission recommended that the university toughen admissions standards by requiring a minimum score of 1,000 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, other historically black colleges and universities already are near that mark.

At Spelman College, a women's liberal arts school in Atlanta, the average Scholastic Aptitude Test score for freshmen last year was 980, continuing an upward trend that started in 1986.

The average score for Howard freshmen last year was 882.

And while Howard has a history of producing leading black professionals, such as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sharon Pratt Dixon, D.C. mayor-elect, schools such as Morehouse College point to their own graduates who are power players on a national level.

"The secretary of Health and Human Services, the director of the National Science Foundation and the chairman of the U.S. Postal Commission are all Morehouse graduates," said Leroy Keith, president of the Atlanta school.

Education experts said it is important to note in comparing Howard to other historically black universities that Howard has typically accepted students with a wider range of abilities than most because it is such a large institution.

Howard continues to have a strong presence in the black community.

More black high school students who take the Scholastic Aptitude Test have their scores sent to Howard than any other university, black or white.

"It is not so much that Howard has diminished in importance, but other schools have increased in importance in providing education for blacks," said Charles Willie, a professor at Harvard University's school of education who has written articles on black higher education.

"Now, Howard must do something to maintain its claim on federal resources."