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Raising the Bar for Middle-Class Blacks

Raising the Bar for Middle-Class Blacks

Next month, Jenna Bond-Louden will board a plane for North Carolina where she and other college seniors will spend all day learning to write a college essay that will wow admissions officers. Her parents have already shelled out hundreds of dollars for the Baltimore senior to take SAT prep classes.
There is nothing unusual about a high school student gearing up for the high-stakes admissions game except that Bond-Louden, a Friends School of Baltimore senior, is Black. Her mother, Karen Bond, the director of the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust, says that she never taught Jenna that her race would get her into some of the country’s elite colleges. It is a message that she and other educators are trying to spread among middle-class Black parents: that at an increasing number of selective colleges and universities affirmative action is no longer available to help their children gain admission.
“The acceptances are not a given anymore,” says Bond, whose program places Black students in private high schools. “These seats are not a given anymore and I don’t know how many [Black] parents know that.  They hear it as a distant phenomenon, but it is not yet a part of their lives.”
University officials say the new race-neutral admissions guidelines still allow them to give extra admissions points to Black students from poor families who have succeeded despite graduating from troubled high schools. But increasingly middle-income Black students who do not have similar disadvantages must compete on the basis of their test scores and grades.
Referenda and court decisions banning the use of race in admissions affect public colleges and universities in only a handful of states like Texas, California and Washington. And many private colleges are still aggressively courting academically talented Black students because university officials say they believe diversity is essential to their institutions. But university officials have increasingly come under fire for the practice of admitting Black students whose test scores are lower than those of White students.  
What is particularly vexing is the persistent gap in achievement between Black and White students of comparable middle-class socioeconomic status. According to figures provided by the College Board, Black students whose parents have at least one graduate degree score an average of 191 points lower on the S.A.T. than White students whose parents also hold a graduate degree.

New Strategies Needed
As university officials nervously watch for the outcome in the University of Michigan affirmative action case, Black parent groups and some admissions officials are calling for a new strategy for Black middle-class students. It entails hitting the books, acing the SAT and signing up for anything that will help them stand out from the thousands of other college applicants.
“The people that really got hurt are the middle-income Black and Hispanic students,” says Rae Lee Siporin, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of California at Los Angeles. “They are not poor and they are not disadvantaged.  There’s no way to distinguish …between nice middle-class kids that just have good record.”
Siporin speaks from more than 20 years of experience. Annually, she and her staff offer freshman admission to only 10,000 of the 35,000 students who apply. Under the current admissions policy UCLA, she says, is more likely to admit a Black student who comes from a poor family and has done well despite attending a mediocre high school.
“Middle-income groups, but particularly African-Americans, are not necessarily going to be picked out,” Siporin says.
In 1998, the first year the university’s affirmative action ban was applied to freshman admissions, the University of California-Berkeley denied admission to 750 minority students with 4.0 grade point averages and SAT scores of at least 1200. Many of these students went on to enroll in other campuses in the University of California system, but those campuses are widely considered to be less prestigious than UCLA and Berkeley.
In response to the 1998 admissions results, five civil rights groups filed suit against the University of California earlier this year saying the Berkeley admissions process relies too heavily on SAT scores and advanced placement classes that are most widely available in schools serving predominantly White, suburban and affluent students.(see Black Issues, Feb. 18, 1998)
It didn’t take long for Patricia Rillera, director of the Young Black Scholars program, to see the effects of Proposition 209. Young Black Scholars was founded in 1985 by Black professional groups in Los Angeles to increase the number of Black students who were eligible to enroll in the University of California system. Before the initiative passed in 1997, Rillera says the program provided tutoring and college counseling to 2,300 students. Today, the program serves 3,000 students.
“Parents recognized that Young Black Scholars were getting into the UC system while other students had to settle. Families were coming to me saying,  ‘If you’re not in Young Black Scholars you won’t get in,'” Rillera says adding that the program has made its participants more competitive by helping students to increase their SAT scores and sharpen their writing skills.
It wasn’t as if the program wasn’t working on these skills before, but Rillera says she and her staff have had to become surrogate parents, often picking up kids for classes and later dropping them back at home.
“These are bright, bright kids. Their parents just have to be there to give them a nudge.”
The University of Texas has revised its admissions criteria to include the consideration of such race-neutral factors as education and economic disadvantage, a trend that has hurt middle-class applicants.
“If you’re from the middle-class you’re not included,” says Billy R. Ballard, associate dean and associate vice president for student affairs and admissions at the Galveston Medical Branch. “You’re looked upon to be competitive.”
Politically, Americans have a problem providing affirmative action to middle-class students, educators say.
“Americans don’t have a problem helping kids from poor disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Dr. Athony P. Carnevale, vice-president for public leadership at the Educational Testing Service. “But the public is not interested in helping students from middle-class backgrounds.”
Carnevale considers this as a shortsighted view, adding that studies have shown that it takes at least three generations of college going in families before you begin to see things that impact achievement.  Things like a larger number of books in the home, more parents getting graduate degrees, and families going to museums and educational trips.
“This is really a problem, because when you don’t allow middle-class to go to selective institutions, you lost momentum,” he says.  “These are the students who have the best chance of going on to elite schools, of becoming leaders. ”
Leah Latimer, author of Higher Ground: Preparing African-American Children for College, says she realized the admissions game was changing when she attended a meeting of the College Board in Chicago two years ago. While there, she overheard heard an admissions official from the University of Texas say, “Colleges are going to be less forgiving of middle-class underachievers. They can’t play the race card anymore.”
“It’s more important than ever for Black students to be competitive,” Latimer says. Moreover, she says Black students and parents need to learn early on what classes are needed to enter college. “Within our communities we don’t know how high the bar is set. Black students often get a false sense of complacency in high school because they are in the top of their class. But they get a rude awakening in their freshman year at college.”
In her book, Latimer urges parents to become more involved in their children’s education and make sure they are taking a rigorous college prep curriculum. “It’s too late to start in the senior year.”
Others echo her thoughts.
“This is all so new and it’s changing so rapidly,” says Thomas LaVeist, author of the Daystar College Guide for Black Students. “But middle-class African Americans must rethink the way they prepare kids for college because there is a new set of rules.”

 A More Active Role for Parents
Both LaVeist and Latimer argue that Black parents need to realize that all families are feeling the pinch. Many students are realizing that a college degree is necessary to get a good-paying job in today’s economy. In contrast to the early nineties when colleges were desperate for students, colleges everywhere are receiving record numbers of applications and can be more choosy about whom they select.
LaVeist says parents need to be much more vigilant about what is going on in their children’s schools, even in middle-income neighborhoods.
“Far too many Black parents think that it is the school’s job to educate their children. We can’t afford to do that anymore. We have to get our kids into SAT prep classes, into Advanced Placement classes to make them eligible under a new set of rules.”
A number of school districts across the country are so worried about the disparity in achievement between White and Black students that they have formed a network to try to close the gap. Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Ill., where 42 percent of the students are Black and many come middle-class backgrounds, is typical of the 14 districts in its network. Although many of Evanston’s Black students come from families where their parents have college degrees, many of the students do just enough to get by, says Venessa Woods, who runs a program to improve the study skills and grades of students at the high school. During the 1997-1998 academic year, nearly 25 percent of Township’s Black students had flunked one class compared to 4 percent of White students.
“I’ve had many Black students tell me that it’s not cool to be intelligent,” she says. “Although many are capable of taking honors classes they don’t because they say if you’re in honors you’re not Black.” 
“African-American and Hispanic students can no longer depend on affirmative action as a protector,” says Shirley Nelson, founder of the Chantilly Pyramid Minority Student Achievement Committee. The group was founded in 1984 by families in Northern Virginia that were concerned about the gap in achievement between minority students and white students in Fairfax County and the low number of Black students in honors and AP classes. The committee has worked with schools to improve the academic skills of Black students and runs a summer math institute for middle and high school students.
“Students have to meet the mark in elementary, middle and high school,” Nelson says. “If we want our kids to go to the top, we have to step up to the task, and be aware and insist our kids take higher achievement level classes.”  

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