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Hard-Won Enrollment Gains Are Quietly Deteriorating

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This article was reported by Staff Writers Sheppard Ranbom and J.R. Sirkin, and Associate Editor M. Sandra Reeves. It was written by Ms. Reeves.


One California higher-education official calls it "sitting on a time bomb." A University of Chicago professor says its implications for the future are "frightening." And the country's largest association of colleges and universities believes it may portend "a crisis ... devastating to the country's continued prosperity and well-being."

"It" is the little-publicized fact that, at a time when economic experts are predicting a future job market built on higher-order skills and advanced training, declining proportions of black and Hispanic youths--the two burgeoning sectors of the nation's youth population--are going on to college.

After more than a decade of effort to increase the proportion of minority populations enrolling in colleges and universities, the nation's attention has turned elsewhere--and the rate of college-going for blacks and Hispanics has slowly and quietly begun to sink.

Interviews with school and college officials across the nation paint a curious picture of this phenomenon.

Concern, particularly among minority educators, is widespread. But so far has the problem slipped on the national agenda that no current, comprehensive data are available to fully document its dimensions.

The federal government now consciously gives low priority to its statistics-gathering role, and both college and public-school officials in many instances report that they no longer track college-enrollment data by race or ethnicity. (See accompanying story on page 13.)

The recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association held in Chicago included a session on the current deficiencies in research assessing academic achievement among minority students.

There, Rafael Magallan, director of the Hispanic Higher Education Committee, charged that the problem of low college-admissions and high dropout rates among Hispanics has not been adequately addressed in part because statistical informa-tion on Hispanic students is practically nonexistent.

Even Howard University, a leading black private institution that has been a source of data on minorities, announced plans this month to close its Institute for the Study of Education Policy, which was established in 1974 to assess the status of blacks in higher education and to monitor the effect of laws on their progress. The school cited budgetary reasons for the move.

Leonard Haynes 3rd, vice president of Louisiana's predominantly black Southern University System and formerly director of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges' office for the advancement of public black colleges, said a combination of developments has sent "a false message" from Washington that is discouraging minority students and lulling the nation's higher-education community into complacency.

That message, he said, is that "somehow or another affirmative action is no longer necessary, that blacks and other minorities have achieved parity and equity and that there is now a fair chance for everybody to go where--and as far as--they want to go."

He specifically cited as negative developments recent court decisions eroding the concept of affirmative action, efforts to reduce domestic spending, including student financial aid, and shifts in long-standing federal positions on civil rights.

The Demographic Picture

Together with the findings of several recent analyses of the problem by education groups, the available data suggest that--in the words of the College Board's new report on blacks' academic progress--recent social, economic, and policy trends "threaten to wipe out" the dramatic gains made by minority groups since the mid-1960's in educational opportunity and attainment.

Black college-going rates as a proportion of the 18-to-24-year-old population of blacks peaked in 1975 at 32 percent, leveled off, and then began dropping--to 27.8 by 1980 and to 27 percent in 1983.

But U.S. Census figures show that between 1980 and 1983, while the population of 18-to-24-year-old whites was dropping by .5 percent, the 18-to-24-year-old black population grew by 5.5 percent.

The proportion of whites going on to college, meanwhile, has remained fairly constant at around 32 percent since 1970--even as the cohort's total numbers declined after 1979.

The college-going rate for blacks is dropping despite the fact that their dropout rate at the high-school level has dropped substantially over the last 15 years.

According to the study, "Student Aid and Minority Enrollment in Higher Education," released earlier this year by the American Association of State Colleges and Univer-sities (aascu), the proportion of black high-school graduates going on to college dropped by 11 percent between 1975 and 1981.

The study also found that although the number of Hispanics in the college-age population grew rapidly during the same three-year period, swelling their college enrollment by some 50,000, the proportion of Hispanic high-school graduates going on to college dropped by 18 percent.

The American Council on Education's Third Annual Status Report on Minorities in Education, released last November, also found that despite their increasing share of the college-age population, blacks and Hispanics have gained no ground as a proportion of those enrolled in or graduating from colleges.

Since 1976, blacks have registered a decreasing proportional share of enrollments at all postsecondary levels and have experienced losses in their proportional share of degrees earned at every level, the report said. The proportional share of degrees earned has leveled off for Hispanics at the baccalaureate and doctoral levels and declined in other areas.

The ace's overview indicates that the few areas of higher education in which gains or steady growth have occurred for blacks since the mid-1970's are largely the result of increases in the number of black women attending. Said the report: "Black men registered significant decreases in degrees received at all levels."

Enrollments in junior and community colleges have declined in the last two years--the first such declines in 20 years--by a total of 2.6 percent. Yet, school-district and college officials suggest that increasing numbers of blacks and Hispanics who do go to college are attending these less costly two-year institutions.

According to the aascu study, 54 percent of Hispanic college students are enrolled in two-year public institutions; 41 percent of black students are enrolled in these schools; but only 35 percent of white students attend two-year institutions.

Yet, says the College Board in its new report, "Equality and Excellence: The Educational Status of Black Americans," students attending two-year colleges are much less likely than those who enroll at four-year institutions to eventually attain the baccalaureate degree.

Enrollments in the nation's 109 historically or predominantly black colleges and universities--institutions that have graduated extremely high percentages of black leaders nationally and traditionally served as a resource for both low-income and educationally disadvantaged minority students--declined for the first time between 1980 and 1982. The total enrollment figure for these institutions inched upward slightly in 1983--mainly as a result of the increased admission of white students--but is still below the 1980 peak.

All available data confirm that the difficulties blacks and Hispanics are encountering in college admissions during the 1980's continue at the graduate level. The proportion of black students enrolled in graduate school has dropped over the past five years from more than 6 percent to 4.2 percent. The Hispanic students' proportion has remained steady at about 2.5 percent despite their dramatic population growth.

According to the ace survey, nonresident aliens received more8doctoral degrees during the five-year period than the combined total for all U.S. minority students. In the physical sciences, nonresidents received advanced degrees at a rate of almost three to one over U.S. minorities.

Stirrings of Protest

The reality behind such stark tabulations has begun to hit home for black students and faculty members on many college campuses, particularly at major private institutions in the Northeast, where the long-dormant protest impulse has stirred in recent months, producing sit-ins, rallies, and charges of institutional racism. (See accompanying story on page 1.)

"The ideology of racism originated in academe," said Asa G. Hilliard, professor of education at Georgia State University and former dean of the San Francisco State University school of education, before a student gathering at Stanford University recently.

At the same meeting, Mary Rhodes Hoover, head of the black-studies program at California State University-Long Beach, said that "black males are going down the tubes" because of their exclusion from the educational mainstream.

U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner and former Office of Education official Mary Frances Berry echoed that view at a meeting this month of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. "The black middle class is falling further and further behind whites and they are not catching up," she told the group of 300 educators from predominantly black colleges.

Citing U.S. Labor Department statistics, Ms. Berry said that both the numbers and the percentages of blacks holding managerial and professional positions "have been decreasing every year for the last four years."

In fact, the College Board report states that "unemployment rates and labor-force rates are strongly correlated with educational attainment for both blacks and whites." But for blacks, the study found, "marked differences in employability occur only for those with a college degree."

The Ford Foundation's Commission on the Higher Education of Minorities, in its final report in 1982, made a similar linkage between the attainment of a college degree and the economic well-being of minorities.

Said the commission: "Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians all suffer from powerlessness, and higher education is clearly one of the main routes whereby individuals can attain positions of economic and political power."

Ignoring the Future

Yet the higher-education community has seemed to many ill-prepared--or unwilling--to deal at a time of financial strain with the impact of heavy concentrations of black and Hispanic youths in the college-applicant pool.

"Higher-education analysts have systematically ignored the rapidly increasing percentage of minorities in American public schools, now 46 percent in Texas, 43 percent in California, and 32 percent in New York State," said Harold L. Hodgkinson, the former director of the National Institute of Education, in a 1983 report prepared for the National Commission on Student Financial Assistance and published by the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities.

The birth-rate decline that occurred from 1964 to 1978, he said, "was primarily a white and middle-class phenomenon."

The demographic data are so stark that Mr. Hodgkinson and other researchers suggest that in ignoring the growing black and Hispanic populations, higher-education institutions may be ignoring the nation's--and their own--future.

The two subgroups are growing at rates that are, respectively, three and five times that of the U.S. population as a whole. By the turn of the century, population experts predict, blacks and Hispanics will constitute a quarter of the U.S. population.

And, with the median age for both groups substantially below that of white Americans, experts say, the future strength of the U.S. work force--and the secure retirement of today's middle-aged worker--will increasingly rest on the skills and productivity of minorities.

"The dependency of middle-class white Americans on the success of minority youth in school and at work is just beginning," said Mr. Hodgkinson in his niicu study. "Of the 10 percent added to the current work force by 1990, close to half will be minority."

The number of workers paying for the pension benefits of each retiree, he added, has fallen from 17 in 1950 to about three today. "By 1990, he said, "the number will be less."

Populations Concentrated

A complicating demographic factor--for school systems as well as colleges--is the uneven geographic distribution of these youthful black and Hispanic populations.

According to the aascu study, more than 65 percent of the nation's black population lives in only 12 states--California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Almost 63 percent of Hispanic Americans live in just three states--New York, California, and Texas.

Yet, interviews with college and public-education officials in these states suggest that the college-enrollment data for minorities are no better--and in some cases are worse--in these locations than the national average. For example:

In California, the number of blacks and Hispanics entering institutions in the California State University System and the state's community colleges (which enroll more than 80 percent of the state's Hispanic and black high-school graduates attending college) declined significantly between 1980 and 1983.

State higher-education officials said overall enrollments at two-year colleges have declined because of financial problems stemming from the Proposition 13 tax initiative. Enrollment of recent Hispanic graduates fell by 16 percent--from 16,125 to 13,574--over the three-year period, and enrollment of blacks dropped 13 percent--from 10,405 to 9,023.

At institutions in the California State University System, Hispanic enrollment declined by 10 percent--from 2,789 to 2,508 students--and black enrollment dropped by 20 percent--from 1,953 to 1,566.

In Michigan, black enrollment in all colleges and universities has been declining as a percentage of total enrollment since 1976. In that year, the 19,900 blacks enrolled accounted for 4.2 percent of total enrollment; in 1984, the 16,202 blacks enrolled made up 3.2 percent of the total.

At Ohio's public colleges and universities, the number of black males in the freshman class dropped from 8,123 in 1980 to 6,938 in 1983. Total black enrollment in undergraduate and graduate school dropped from 18,654 to 16,589 over the three-year period.

At the same time, black enrollment at Ohio's community colleges increased from 12,310 to 17,860.

In New York, a state experiencing large population increases among both minority groups, the number of Hispanic students attending colleges in the state university system rose 11 percent between 1980 and 1982, but black enrollments fell by 4 percent.

Thomas Annas, associate vice chancellor for institutional research for the State University of New York System said the situation improved dramatically between 1982 and 1984, however. With 85 percent of the enrollments tabulated, he said, black enrollments appear to be up 13 percent and Hispanic enrollments up 20 percent.

Although black and Hispanic enrollments have "been improving" at the University of Texas, Austin, they still represent only about 12 percent of the school's total enrollment, in a state in which 35 percent of the population belongs to one of the two minority groups. According to admissions officials, the school had 1,110 black students and 3,873 Hispanics in 1980; today, there are 1,582 blacks--3.29 percent--and 4,164 Hispanics--8.67 percent--out of a total student body of 47,900.

In Pennsylvania, Donald K. Marsh, associate director of admissions and coordinator of minority recruitment at Franklin and Marshall College, alarmed when the number of blacks in the school's freshman class dropped by more than 50 percent this year, surveyed other small, private Pennsylvania institutions and found "there was only one" showing an increased enrollment of blacks.

Return of 'Benign Neglect'

"All of us acknowledge the ideal of integration," said the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, president of Georgetown University and chairman of the American Council on Education, at a joint meeting of the ace and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges last November, "but our zeal for keeping access open and for working at the integration of faculties has slipped. In some institutions it has disappeared."

Cuts and changes in student aid programs have undoubtedly affected the college-going rates for blacks and Hispanics, researchers say.

The aascu study, for example, showed that over the last decade the median incomes of Hispanic and black families, as a percentage of white family income, have fallen by 66 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

It also found that student aid paid a smaller share of costs for black students in 1983 than in 1978, and that over the same period "white students increased their use of student aid to a greater degree than did minority students.

During the same period, college costs grew by about 10 percent annually; this year, costs at private colleges average $9,000 and those at public institutions average $5,000.

But many feel that what the Ford Foundation commission characterized as the "benign neglect or indifference" of some educators may be as important a factor as increased costs and declining aid in the enrollment slide.

Minority groups no longer have the leverage of societal pressure to force expansions in minority recruitment and institutional aid programs, said Southern University's Mr. Haynes.

That underlying attitudinal change--what one study calls a national ''mood shift"--is compounded by financial exigencies on campus and the need to respond to education-reform goals that place "excellence" above equity.

"I think a lot of schools take the easy way out now and go back to traditional areas of recruiting--the suburban, middle-class white," said Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Connecticut's Wesleyan University.

Failures of the 1960's Reginald Wilson, director of the American Council on Education's office of minority concerns, attributes part of the current slow-down in minority-recruiting efforts to the backlash created by attempts in the 1960's and 70's to "literally drag minority kids off the streetcorner and put them in college."

"Students were brought in at the academic margin, without much thought given to how they could adjust," said Sammie T. Robinson, the assistant director of admissions at Maine's Bowdoin College. "A lot dropped out, returned home, or transferred--the attrition rate was quite high."

The nationwide movement for higher admissions standards, which has reached all the way to the community-college level in some states and touched such public institutions as Ohio State University, which formerly required only residency and a high-school diploma, has reduced the pool of black and Hispanic students eligi-ble for college, many educators say.

But others charge colleges with using what one black educator calls ''the smokescreen of higher standards" as an excuse for not bolstering minority enrollments.

The C Student

Colleges "all want that five percent" of minority students who rank at the top of their class, said James Evans, administrative assistant for guidance in the Detroit school system. "Five years ago, when they had support systems, they'd say, 'Give us the C students and we'll take care of the rest.' Today, nobody is asking for the C student."

Samuel M. Kipp, a research specialist for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, said the University of California System's stringent entrance requirements leave only 3.6 percent of the state's black high-school graduates and 4.9 percent of Hispanic graduates even eligible for admission, compared with 15.5 percent of white students and 26 percent of Asian-Americans.

Only 10.1 percent of blacks and 15.3 percent of Hispanics are eligible for admission to the California State University System, he said, compared with one-third of white and half of Asian-American graduates.

These statistics suggest, Mr. Kipp said, that California educators are "sitting on a time bomb."

Taking Risks

College admissions officers say they continue to "take risks" on borderline minority students, but many, like Michael Reed, assistant director of admissions and alumni relations at Williams College, say there is a point beyond which the risk is counterproductive. "We don't want to take too many below what we think is the survival threshold," according to Mr. Reed.

But the uncertain financial-aid picture, clouded each year by proposals by the Reagan Administration to eliminate programs and impose ceilings on the amount students can receive, is causing even the academically able minority student "to pause in deciding whether to go into higher education," said Mr. Haynes.

While less than 10 percent of white Americans live below the government's official poverty line, one-third of black Americans and 27.2 percent of Hispanic Americans do.

Yet, according to the aascu study on student aid and minority enrollment, aid to white students between 1978 and 1983 increased by a greater percentage than aid to either minority group. In fact, aid to black students decreased by 4.7 percent during the five-year period.

The study attributed the differential to the fact that whites in general attended more expensive institutions and the bulk of federal aid programs shifted during the period from entitlements to loans that largely benefited middle-income families.

Low-Cost Institutions

Barry Beckham, professor of English at Brown University and editor of The Black Students' Guide to Colleges, said minority students are not "getting the message that aid is available" and that their parents "panic" when they see the price tag of a college education.

"The parents did not go to college," he said. "They are often blue-collar workers who ask how in the world their kids can go to college when expenses are $15,000 per year, which is as much as they made last year. They question it, even though they just sat down with a financial-aid officer who explained everything. They wonder: 'Why can't Joe just go to one of those computer schools, which are hot."'

The impulse to channel black and Hispanic students toward vocational training rather than four-year colleges, is not limited to financially strapped parents, however.

A recent University of Chicago study prepared for the Illinois Senate concluded that, instead of promoting upward mobility, the predominately minority Chicago school system "reflects and sometimes reinforces the underlying inequities of the society of metropolitan Chicago."

In particular, the report showed that poor and minority students in Chicago, partly by virtue of the residential segregation that clusters them in areas with the fewest resources, tend to be "channeled" into community colleges and the least selective four-year institutions.

"For students in minority neighborhoods in Chicago, the black community colleges serve as segregated neighborhood colleges strongly connected with a system of separate and unequal education that proceeds from elementary school through college," the study said.

Gary Orfield, the professor of education and political science who directed the study, said low-income and minority students tend to be in schools and districts where curricula are inadequate and the school environment itself is a deterrent to college.

"Only a fraction of those schools offer a college-preparatory program," he said. Moreover, the schools "don't have physics teachers, foreign-language teachers, don't give entrance exams. There is inadequate counseling, large class sizes, fewer teachers with advanced degrees, most of whom came out of colleges that have least competitive student bodies."

Linda Darling-Hammond, senior social scientist at the Rand Corporation and author of the recent College Board report on blacks in higher education, found that high numbers of black high-school students are not taking the courses that will enable them to succeed in--or even enter--college.

In 1981, black students took fewer years of advanced coursework in mathematics, physical sciences, and social studies than their white peers. While they were as likely to study at least three years of mathematics, "they were much less likely to have taken algebra, trigonometry, or calculus," Ms. Darling-Hammond said. "Their years of coursework must have been concentrated in areas like general math or business math."

Some 35 percent of Hispanic high-school students nationwide are enrolled in vocational education courses, according to a report from the Hispanic Policy Development Project released last December. Another 40 percent are enrolled in the general-education track. By the time they graduate, Hispanic students have taken fewer academic courses than any other student group, the study noted.

Though the high-school dropout rate for blacks has improved steadily since the end of the last decade, for both blacks and Hispanics the rate is still high. According to the final report of the Commission on the Higher Education of Minorities, the dropout rate for blacks is about 28 percent, compared with a 17 percent rate for whites. Some 45 percent of Mexican-American and Puerto Rican students never complete high school, and this attrition begins in junior high, the report noted.

Poor Attitudes

Many observers suggest that both the dropout problem and the low college-going rate for these minorities are rooted in personal attitudes that are extremely negative.

Unpublished data from the 1983-84 National Assessment of Educational Progress provide new evidence to support this belief.

According to Richard P. Duran, associate professor in the University of California at Santa Barbara's graduate school of education, the data show that many minority students begin to take a dim view of their chances of finishing high school and attending college as early as the 4th grade.

"More emphasis has to be placed on boosting students' self-esteem; there needs to be encouragement, role models, and proper guidance," according to Mr. Beckham.

"The problem is frightening," said Mr. Orfield. "In this era of economic transformation, there will be no jobs for people without skills. Yet it is almost impossible for most black and Hispanic students, who make up 85 percent of students in Chicago, to get ready to go to college and get the higher-order skills that lead to better jobs."

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