Study: Inequalities Persist in Access to Higher Education

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A recent report highlighting stagnant graduation rates for black college students has brought renewed attention to the need for greater cooperation between K-12 schools and higher education.

The report by the Southern Education Foundation cites inadequate K-12 schooling as one of several factors limiting African-Americans' access to and success in college. For example, low-income students--who are disproportionately likely to be black--are far less likely than middle- income students to enroll in rigorous classes during high school or take Advanced Placement exams than those in families with higher incomes, the study released here last month concludes.

For More Information

Copies of "Miles To Go" are available for $20 each from the SEF at 135 Auburn Ave. N.E., 2nd Floor, Atlanta, GA 30303-2503; or by calling (404) 523-0001.

"Four-year universities need to engage themselves in a systematic way with ... elementary and secondary programs," said C. Peter Magrath, the president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Universities and public schools "must set up programs that get young boys and girls into science and math and let them know they have an opportunity to go to college," said Mr. Magrath, a member of the advisory board that oversaw the report.

The study by the Atlanta-based foundation also warns of shortcomings in financial-aid allocations and the need for greater mentoring and other forms of help for minority college students.

Money Problems

"Miles to Go: A Report on Black Students in Postsecondary Education" examined public higher education in 16 Southern states and in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri--all states that once segregated their colleges. Nearly three-fourths of all black freshmen in the United States attend school in the states studied.

The percentage of African-Americans aged 18-24 who received bachelor's degrees from public colleges and universities has barely increased over 20 years, the report says.

Black students earned 10.3 percent of all bachelor's degrees given in 1995, up only slightly from 8.5 percent in 1976. African-Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In several states, the proportion of blacks who are first-time, full-time freshmen lags substantially behind the percent of African-Americans in the 18- to 24-year-old population overall.

South Carolina has the largest disparity; Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Delaware and Louisiana showed substantial disparities, the study states. In Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia, the percentage of black freshman exceeded the population of black college-age students. The states, however, have the lowest population of African-American students. Maryland was the only state noted for "reasonable progress."

All too often, the report says, the problem for African-American students is money.

"Many financial-aid programs ... do not reach students who need them most," said Norman C. Francis, a member of the advisory committee and the president of Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, the nation's only predominantly black Roman Catholic college or university. Money "is a major barrier to black students."

According to the report, more than one-third of financial aid in Southern states is given without consideration of need--bad news for black families in the region, who earn almost 50 percent less than the average middle-income white family. Moreover, the current trend in aid is toward student loans rather than outright grants.

But the issue is more complicated, said Theodore M. Shaw, an associate director and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. in New York City.

The report's findings illustrate "a national trend in which many people have just given up or turned a blind eye to the issues of race," Mr. Shaw said. "If this report is accurate, then it has implications for not only African-Americans but for the entire region. No one is going to be well served by a population which lags behind the rest of the population."

Lack of Mentors

Tighter admissions policies and the loss of remedial programs also hinder minority students, the report says. Often, those who are admitted remain at risk of failure because of a lack of mentors and other forms of assistance.

Among the report's other findings:

  • About one-third of blacks who enroll in four-year schools in the states studied do not earn degrees within six years. In Mississippi, for example, 40 percent of incoming freshmen in 1988 were African-American. By graduation, that percentage had dropped to 23 percent.
  • Only five of the 19 states have a faculty that is more than 10 percent black.
  • Black students in 13 states overwhelmingly attend community colleges or historically black colleges and universities. Only 8.6 percent of first-year black students enrolled in predominantly white, prestigious public colleges and universities in those states.
  • After graduation, only a handful of African-Americans pursue advanced degrees. In 1976-77, blacks made up 3.8 percent of those who earned doctoral degrees. In 1994-95, that figure had risen only to 4.3 percent.

Responsibility, the report concludes, lies with just about everyone. States must improve their K-12 education systems. Colleges and universities must recommit to integrating their campuses and provide monetary and emotional support for black students. And business leaders, nonprofit organizations, and citizens' groups must also help out.

"There is much, much more that needs to be done to close the gap," said Elridge W. McMillan, the president of the SEF. "There are dire implications."

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 12

Published in Print: August 1, 1998, as Study: Inequalities Persist in Access to Higher Education
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