Black College Enrollment Found Stable

By Robert Rothman — April 29, 1987 3 min read

WASHINGTON--The number and proportion of blacks aged 18 to 24 who are enrolled in college has remained stable during the 1980’s, and the total black enrollment in 1985 was almost double that of 1970, a new federally funded study has concluded.

“The most recent trends, we find, do not indicate retreat from the strong advances in black college enrollment achieved over the entire 15-year period [since 1970],’' states the report, “College Enrollment Patterns Among Black and White Students.’'

But while the college-going rate for blacks has stabilized, it still lags behind that of whites, the study found, largely because the achievement levels for blacks lag behind whites’.

Black enrollment would probably increase dramatically, the report concludes, if black students’ precollegiate achievement improved to a level comparable to that of whites. Students with similar achievement levels attend college at similar rates, it notes.

‘The Decline Is Real’

The study, which cost the Education Department $24,000, was based on data from three sources: the Census Bureau’s population survey, the department’s Higher Education General Information Survey, and its High School and Beyond survey.

The study is expected to fuel an ongoing debate over the extent of minority participation in higher education.

Education Department officials, using the Census figures, have pointed to the stable black college-going rate as evidence that cutbacks in federal student aid have had little effect on enrollment.

But college officials, who have argued for increased aid, have cited figures from the department’s Center for Education Statistics that show that black enrollment has declined. They charge that cutbacks in aid have contributed to the decline.

“They are repudiating their own data because it doesn’t tell the story they want to tell,’' said Reginald Wilson, director of the office of minority concerns at the American Council on Education.

While enrollment among 18- to 24-year-old blacks has remained stable in this decade, Mr. Wilson said, overall minority enrollment has declined because fewer older students are attending, and college administrators “see it and feel it.’'

“I get calls from college presidents every day asking for assistance in recruitment and retention of minority students,’' he said. “The decline is real. It is not spurious.’'

But Stephen Chaikind, chief economist and senior associate of Decision Resources Corporation, a Washington-based firm that prepared the report, said the college-going patterns of the traditional college age group, not overall enrollment, have the most relevance for policymakers.

Older students attend college “because of other factors that might not be affected by education policy,’' he said.

Unlike the data from the Center for Education Statistics, the Census data include information on the age and race of students, he said.

“We used the best data one could find,’' Mr. Chaikind said.

Enrollment Patterns

The study found that the number of blacks aged 18 to 24 enrolled in college rose by 75 percent between 1970 and 1986--from 416,000 to 734,000. Most of that increase occurred between 1970 and 1976; the number and proportion of blacks in college declined from 1976 to 1980.

However, it noted that from 1980 to 1985, the proportion of all blacks aged 18 to 24 who attended college rose from 19.2 percent to 19.8 percent.

The proportion of black high-school graduates who attended college declined slightly in this decade, from 27.6 percent to 26.1 percent, the study found. But, it found, the proportion of blacks aged 18 to 24 who had graduated from high school increased sharply, from 69.7 percent in 1980 to 75.6 percent in 1985.

Within the same income groups, it found, black high-school graduates attend college in proportions equal to or greater than white students.

Similarly, it found, black and white students with roughly equal levels of academic achievement attend college at approximately the same rate.

However, citing data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study noted that black achievement levels lag far behind those of white students.

As a result, the study concluded, “future gains in black enrollment in college will probably depend on improvements in academic achievement by blacks at the elementary and secondary levels of education.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1987 edition of Education Week as Black College Enrollment Found Stable