College-Enrollment Trends for Black Males 'Less Extreme' Than Thought, Study Says

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The widely reported plummet in the number of young black men attending college is in fact largely a statistical anomaly caused by the increasing number of white women who opt for higher education, a new study by the RAND Corporation contends.

The study, issued last week, argues that a substantial increase in the number and rate of traditional-age white women attending college in the 1970's and 1980's has created the appearance of a sharp drop in the college-enrollment rate of black males.

Moreover, while the number of traditional-age white college students has remained stable since the mid-1970's, the study says, the total number of whites between ages 18 and 24 has declined, creating a rapid rise in the enrollment rate. The fluctuations in the enrollment rate of blacks over the same period mirror an increase, and subsequent decline, in the total number of blacks in that age group.

"In some respects, enrollment trends have been particularly negative in recent years for black males," the study says. "Yet across an array of measures, this pattern is both less clear-cut and less extreme than many observers apparently believe."

Attributing the growing gap in enrollment between blacks and whites to trends among black men is "clearly inaccurate," the report says. ''On the contrary," it states, "the divergence between blacks and whites is attributable at least as much (and in some age groups more) to the trends shown by women. This is most clear-cut in the case of the enrollment rates of youth in the traditional college-age population."

The study acknowledges that there was a 6 percent decline in the number of black males enrolled in college between 1976 and 1988 and a 2 percent drop for white males. At the same time, however, there was a 22 percent increase for black women and a 31 percent increase for white women during those years, the study says.

The fact that other studies and news reports have suggested that this drop in black male enrollment is the cause of the widening gap in enrollment rates between whites and blacks suggests an incomplete analysis of the data, the study argues.

A thorough analysis, the study contends, does not suggest that "black males are the group for which enrollment trends are anomalous--rather, it is white females who are unusual." Explaining the enrollment gap "solely on the basis of experiences specific to black males, is not plausible," the study concludes.

The study further dismisses the "increasingly severe social problems confronting black males," lower income levels, different educational aspirations of high-school students, and changes in military-enlistment rates as possible explanations for the enrollment trends over the last several years.

The findings contradict numerous reports and news articles in recent years that have focused on at-risk young black men.

A 1988 study by the American Council on Education, for example, reported that the percentage of all black males enrolled in college declined from 4.3 percent to 3.5 percent between 1976 and 1986, and the percentage of black male high-school graduates who had attended at least one year of college fell from 50.4 percent to 47.4 percent during the same period.

Other researchers, meanwhile, have been unable to discover any negative trends in minority, particularly black male, postsecondary enrollment.

The RAND study, conducted by Daniel Koretz, claims to be the first to analyze two different data sources--the U.S. Census Bureau's annual Current Population Survey and the U.S. Education Department's Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System--in an attempt to reconcile the conflicting opinions about college-enrollment trends and rates among black males.

While recognizing that the gap between postsecondary enrollments of blacks and whites has widened since the early 1970's, the study says the rate of college enrollment for black males has not fallen in recent years, and has kept pace with enrollment rates of black women and white men.

The rate at which 18- to 24-year-old black males enroll in college has remained relatively stable--between 20 percent in 1973 and 21 percent in 1987--the study says. The enrollment rate for black females has remained steadily about 1 or 2 percentage points higher than that of black males after surpassing the black male rate in 1975, according to the study.

The rate of white male enrollment also remained relatively stable during those years, the study says, at between 30 and 32.5 percent.

Moreover, the total enrollment of black males has not declined considerably, but has stabilized, again much like white male enrollment, the study concludes.

Meanwhile, more white women are enrolling in college, the study says. Thirty-one percent of white females between 18 and 24 enrolled in college in 1987 compared with 22 percent in 1973, the study says.

In the study, Mr. Koretz does not belittle what he calls the "stagnation" of black males' college enrollment, however, calling it "discouraging."

Indeed, Mr. Koretz cites what he sees as a more ominous trend--the declining proportion of black high-school graduates ages 18 to 24 who attend college.

The study notes that although the rate at which black high-school graduates attend college has increased in recent years, it is still about 3.5 percentage points below its mid-70's peak of 33 percent. The improvement in high-school-graduation rates of black men in the last 15 years has not translated into an improvement in college-going rates, the report says.

Mr. Koretz says in the study that he is not sure why the college-going rate of young blacks has not improved at a time when the high-school graduation rate has. He comments, however, that "ethnic differences in academic performance, while shrinking, are still sizable."

He also expresses concern that a rising number of black youths who attend college for at least one year are leaving before completing four years.

He calls for greater efforts at the elementary and secondary levels to equalize academic opportunity and preparedness. Postsecondary institutions, meanwhile, must develop programs to help minorities adjust to college and to increase minority enrollments, Mr. Koretz concludes.

Copies of the study, "Trends in the Postsecondary Enrollment of Minorities," number R-3948-FF, are available for $10 each from the RAND Corporation's Publication Department, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138; telephone (213) 393-0411, extension 6686.

Vol. 10, Issue 12

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