In September 1981, President Reagan announced with fanfare at a White House luncheon that he was signing an executive order to increase federal support for the nation's traditionally black colleges and universities.
He told the black college presidents who were his guests that he was demanding that "measurable objectives" be set for federal aid-giving agencies and to have annual "report cards" on the agencies' performance.
Since then, two glowing performance reports have been sent to the White House, suggesting that federal aid to black schools has increased markedly.
But critics charge that the rosy report cards have been misleading.
Joyce Payne of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges complained in a letter to the Department of Education last summer that the government's figures were "highly distorted."
Of $606 million that the administration said went to black colleges in 1983 as a result of Reagan's initiative, Payne challenged more than $400 million.
She and other critics said the government's figures are greatly inflated by a few large allocations to special schools, such as Howard University here, and that many of the more than 100 historically black schools are receiving less help than before Reagan signed his order.
This is largely because of restrictions that the Reagan administration has imposed in the largest area of federal aid to higher education -- grants, loans and loan guarantees to students.
About 90 percent of students in black colleges rely on federal student-aid programs. That is about twice the level for all college students.
As Payne noted in her letter, "over 70 percent of all funds to NBCU's historically black colleges and universities still come from the Department of Education, in contrast to 42 percent for HEIs all higher education institutions ." And cuts in the large student-aid programs have more than offset increases in smaller special aid programs for black colleges.
Alan Kirschner, director of research and government affairs for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), which represents private black colleges, makes similar arguments.
"More than 90 percent of the students in UNCF receive some form of federal aid," he said in an nterview, "so obviously any failure of student aid to keep pace with inflation affects our students disproportionately.
"Schools like Howard University and Tuskegee Institute have gotten very significant grants, which have inflated the figures," Kirschner said of the federal aid totals, "but most schools are getting far less funds than in previous administrations before the Reagan years because of student aid cuts, and they're hurting."
Three-quarters of United Negro College Fund students receive Pell grants, the outright federal grants that go to lower-income students, compared with one-fourth of all college students, he said, "so any cut in the Pell . . . program is going to hurt the historically black institutions."
Pell grants have covered a declining proportion of students' college costs for the past several years.
In 1982-83, the average grant was $1,023, a 11 percent increase over the 1978-79 average of $921. By contrast, the consumer price index rose 57 percent during the period.
The National Education Association reported last year that the value of the average federal college-student grant had fallen from 40 percent of average college costs to 25 percent during the Reagan administration.
The federal aid problem is one of many that black colleges and universities have had to surmount in recent decades.
They were once the only avenues to higher education for blacks in America. But in recent years traditionally white institutions have begun admitting and recruiting blacks, cutting into black college enrollments and skimming off many of the brightest black students.
Traditionally black institutions lost 13,000 black, full-time undergraduate students from 1976 to 1981, the National Center for Education Statistics reported last year.
Historically black institutions have seen their enrollments drop from 62 percent of all black undergraduate students in 1970 to 37 percent in 1982, the last year for which figures are available.
This trend has been accentuated in recent years by a decline in the total number of black undergraduates.
Overall, black undergraduate enrollment peaked at 10.4 percent of college enrollment in 1978. In 1980, black undergraduate enrollment had slipped to 10.2 percent of total enrollment, or 625,000 undergraduates.
Two years later, in 1982, total black undergraduate enrollment had dropped to 614,000 students, or 9.7 percent of overall enrollment, according the National Center for Education Statistics.
A good example of how black schools have fared recently is Wilberforce University, the oldest black institution in the country and a UNCF school in which 95 percent of the students receive federal student aid. Its president, Yvonne Walker-Taylor, says there has been no perceptible increase in aid in the Reagan years, despite the president's executive order.
"I'm much more aware of the cuts," she said. "In Pell grants, in Title III, in aid to the disadvantaged."
In 1980, Wilberforce, in Wilberforce, Ohio, received $1,056,850 from various federal programs. This year, it is expected to receive $571,886.
As the result of Reagan's black colleges initiative, Wilberforce received a $12,000 grant from the Department of Defense and will be the site of a minority-business conference this month.
"We couldn't really do very much with it," Walker-Taylor said.
Payne, who heads an Office for the Advancement of Public Negro Colleges for the state colleges association, suggested that Wilberforce's experience is typical of black schools'.
She said in her letter that after subtracting large federal grants that went to a few well-known schools, other historically black colleges and universities received 32 percent, or about $197 million, of the $606 million the Reagan administration said was distributed in 1983.
Founded in 1856 by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wilberforce now has 910 students. Most are from single-parent households with annual incomes of $10,000 to $12,000.
The school recently announced a campaign to endow scholarships for its students. It hopes to raise $1 million by 1987.
Driven by inflation, tuition, room and board at Wilberforce increased from $2,670 five years ago to $5,840 this year.
As grant money has dried up under the Reagan administration, the school has been "moving students slowly toward loans," Eric Winston, vice president for development said. Its guaranteed student loans come from a fund that the United Negro College Fund established through Citibank in New York and Independence Federal Savings & Loan here.
The students' average loan burden has more than doubled as the Reagan administration's financial aid initiatives have directed support away from grants and toward loans.
In the 1980-81 school year, the average loan burden at Wilberforce was $650 a student. Last year, it was $1,900.
Wilberforce's annual report, released this week, said: "The picture for federal funding continues to look bleak.
"While it seems that election-year politics will ensure that student aid funds are not cut, the concern for the burgeoning federal deficit will also diminish hopes for desperately needed increases in grant programs.
"Providing adequate student aid will continue to be a major challenge over the next few years."
Walker-Taylor was in Washington in September, when the White House hosted black-college presidents and chancellors in commemoration of the third anniversary of Reagan's executive order.
It was part of the official observance of National Historically Black Colleges Week.
Reagan was the speaker for the annual United Negro College Fund dinner here.
At the White House, Education Secretary T.H. Bell announced the names of a private sector board of advisers to help financially troubled Fisk University in Nashville.
"The thrust of the meeting was largely to save Fisk," Walker-Taylor said, "which is good, but all in all the schools have been much more aware of cuts from this administration."