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U.S. Economic Slump Causes Blacks To Cancel Plans for Attending College

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As some 2 million high-school seniors across the country make their financial preparations for college, educators are expressing fears that low-income black students--who in the 1970's had begun to be represented in greater numbers in the undergraduate- and graduate-education "pipeline"--will be forced for financial reasons to limit their educational choices or to opt out of college altogether.

And they worry about the consequences the phenomenon could have, both for the lives of the students whose access to high-quality college training is limited and for the larger society.

High Cost of Tuition

"The high cost of tuition, combined with uncertainty over the status of federal financial-aid programs and the poor state of the economy, is keeping blacks and lower-income students from applying to private colleges," says John Phillips, executive director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (naicu).

"It is the cruelest irony," notes George Hanford, president of The College Board. "We've been working hard to improve access for minority youth. But at the same time, dollars are being whittled away, and the entire process is being confused, keep-ing the people who need a college education most from attending."

Today, there are about 1.1 million black students enrolled in college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces), out of a total college population of more than 12 million. (About 75 percent of white high-school seniors go on to college; about 20 percent of black seniors do so.)

About half of the black students attend community colleges, according to Leonard L. Haynes, executive vice-president of the Southern University system and former director of the National Association of State and Land Grant Colleges' office for public, predominantly black colleges.

The number who attend community colleges has been rising steadily since the 1960's, and particularly rapidly in the last few years. As recently as 1980, only about 43 percent of all black students attended two-year institutions, according to nces data.

A study released by naicu last fall indicated that the number of students from families with incomes ranging from $6,000 to $24,000 who attended private colleges dropped by 39 percent between 1979 and 1981.

Enrollment gains made by blacks in the last few decades in graduate and professional programs nationwide are also being eroded.

The number of black students at medical schools rose from 2.7 percent in 1968 to 7.5 percent in 1975. But that proportion has declined to 5.8 percent this year, according to Mary K. Schleiter of the University of Chicago medical school.

The number of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in engineering programs rose steadily during the 1970's, but in 1980 fell back to pre-1975 levels. As a group, they represented only 2.1 percent of all engineering students, according to researchers at the Educational Testing Service (ets).

Blacks have made only incremental gains at law schools. In 1969, they represented 3.4 percent of all law students. They represented only 4.3 percent of law students in 1979, and 4.5 percent in 1981, according to statistics published by the American Bar Association.

"Much of the problem can be traced all the way back to the fourth grade," says Herbert J. Flamer, director of the graduate- and professional-school financial-aid service of ets "The poor quality of many inner-city schools does not allow students to master basic skills. By the time many are in high school, their only options are vocational programs and community college."

The economic realities that black families must face, according to Mr. Haynes of Southern University, is another factor that keeps black students from making major strides in improving their educational status.

"Economic factors lead black families to make decisions that are not always in the highest interest of students," Mr. Haynes says. "The average black family is large. They often have at least three kids around the same age. Of those families who send their children to the traditionally black colleges, the median income is about $12,000.

"But even if it was $20,000," he continues, "imagine a family with an 18-, 17-, and 16-year-old, and the oldest comes home saying that he wants to go to a school where the tuition exceeds $2,000. A Pell grant only goes so far, and blacks don't have the collateral to take out loans."

Moreover, there is now a dramatic scarcity of summer jobs and part-time work to help students pay for college. Joblessness among black youths--more than 50 percent--is the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

"Private institutions ask for a student contribution of $600 to $700, but students can't find the work anymore," according to Patricia L. Edwards, chairman of guidance department at Eastern High School in Washington, D.C.

Although many institutions are developing special arrangements to help ease the burden of high college costs, "most of the innovative programs begun in the past few years are loan programs that are of no use to minority or lower-income students," according to Dan Hall, director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago.

Students Frightened Away

"If anything, loans frighten students away," says Judith J. Mayes, college advisor at Los Angeles High School. "They create large debts that these kids can't imagine being able to pay off."

"Last year, the University of Southern California [usc] offered one of our students a financial-aid package that included $4,000 in loans," she adds. "That's like cutting your own throat. After four years of education, you owe $20,000 or $30,000."

A growing trend in recent years, she notes, is that when a student is accepted to a private college like usc--or even a state college--and given a suitable financial-aid package, at the last minute he or she decides to apply to a community college.

Predominantly black colleges, particularly those in the private sector, are also being hit by declines.

"Minority students everywhere are changing their mind and not enrolling," according to Ilene D. Pollack, director of information services for the United Negro College Fund (uncf), an agency that supports the nation's 42 traditionally black private colleges. Last year, uncf institutions reported a 12-percent decline in the size of their freshman classes. Total enrollment fell from about 50,000 students in 1981 to 48,000 last fall.

More than 44 percent of students at uncf schools come from families that earn under $12,000 annually, she says. The median family income of families with students at the 42 institutions is $13,700, compared with $26,800 nationally. About 90 percent of all students at its member schools qualify for financial aid.

Because of both the financial situation and changes related to desegregation, the black private colleges are also now facing sharper competition from the traditionally black public colleges, which have managed to avoid enrollment declines in the last few years. This year, they grew from 2 to 4 percent, according to Mr. Haynes.

New Programs

"Desegregation planning that reorganized state systems of higher education in recent years has opened new programs in black public colleges," he said. "We have more to offer, and our schools are becoming more marketable as a result."

Nonetheless, Mr. Haynes says, minorities are often "not in a position to take advantage of good programs because they don't receive good information."

"A kid from a poor family, cut off from information and attitudinal development, hasn't much chance," says Milton Binns of the Council of Great City Schools.

Mr. Binns, a former director in the office of policy development for postsecondary education in the Reagan Administration, says the long-range implications of the declining number of students who attend four-year institutions could be "devastating" for blacks and for the country as a whole.

Population trends alone, he and others say, suggest the magnitude of the educational and social problems that may lie ahead. The number of blacks aged 15 to 19 will increase by nine percent over the next decade, while the number of whites in that age group will decline by eight percent, according to the Census Bureau.

That shift, they note, will have impacts on secondary and postsecondary education and on national employment patterns, both of which are central to the country's economic and social well-being.

"Minorities and lower-income students have all the cards stacked against them," says William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College.

Because blacks are first-generation college students, their parents can provide little advice, he says. And inner-city high schools, beset with financial problems, are eliminating, observers point out, the very people who could provide the direction the students need.

"Guidance counselors are often the first people cut back. I know of one high school that has two guidance counselors for 2,400 students," Mr. Fitzsimmons says.

"I don't give kids a chance to tell me crazy things or worry about aid," says Ms. Mayes, the college counselor at Los Angeles High School, where almost all students are members of minority groups. "I say, 'Listen. Give the colleges or the government the opportunity to say no. Don't eliminate yourself."'

Only the relative handful of black students who attend the nation's elite independent schools--and their advisors--fail to share the concerns of students at inner-city schools.

"The top black students are in high demand. Colleges like Harvard face intense competition for them," Mr. Fitzsimmons says.

"Minority students here and at the top schools fare well in the admissions process," says Thomas C. Hayden, director of college placement at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. "All, to the one, go to a four-year college. Colleges know these students are well trained, and they try to accept as many as possible."

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