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Vanishing Black College Students?

Vanishing Black College Students?

A young woman at my church confided in me that she dreams of enlisting in the military. Because we were in church, I simply shuddered and held my tongue, but my face must have told her what I would have liked to say. We talked a few minutes and she shared that she has a GPA of 3.4 and wants to be a child psychologist.

Where does the military fit into this? She has been encouraged to consider the military by campus advisors who tell her that she will get college benefits when (or if) she completes her tour of duty. She has been supported in her aspirations by well-intentioned relatives who remember when the military was a great option for African Americans. But she has not been exposed to the fact that there are thousands of colleges that would embrace her talents and even provide financial aid.

Two other young friends, both with outstanding grade point averages, have their sights set on attending Clark Atlanta University. Why? Because a girl in their neighborhood also attends and enjoys it. Never mind that with high B averages, these young women can pick from an array of colleges. Never mind that Clark Atlanta has some fiscal issues we all pray they resolve that may have an impact on incoming students. These young women don’t have as much information as others do, and so their sights are limited. Blessedly, at least, they plan to attend college.

Then there is the brother on my block. He is 17 and way too cool for his own good, a computer wiz whose language is peppered with a hip-hop lingo that I might need a dictionary to understand. His cool and language don’t fool me. He also has a 3.8 GPA and a custodial grandmother convinced that she cannot afford college for him. So he and “his boys” are thinking of starting a Web design business that may well fly, but its chances would be enhanced if the brothers would get business degrees.

I’ve got nothing against the military, Clark Atlanta or even entrepreneurship without a degree. These young people are living proof of a headline that blared out at me a month ago. Fewer African American students were admitted to state universities around the country, prompting speculation that the African American presence is endangered on many campuses. According to a  recent Washington Post report, the University of Michigan enrolled just 350 freshman students this year, down from 410 last year and 500 in 2001. Other campuses, including the University of California and the University of Georgia, have also enrolled fewer African American freshmen this year.

Part of the reason is confusion about how welcome African American students are and whether affirmative action policies work. The Supreme Court did not forbid affirmative action with its 2003 decisions on the University of Michigan’s admission policies, yet perceptions of the policy vary. Further, hostile groups like the Center for Individual Rights have threatened lawsuits and some campuses have slowed affirmative action efforts. Confusion is so rampant among educational administrators that the American Association for the Advancement of Science developed a guidebook to help science, technology, engineering and mathematics educators “achieve diversity in a constitutionally permissible manner.”

Outright hostility and affirmative action indifference are not the only reasons African American high school students are not applying to college. While African Americans are at a disadvantage in playing the SAT game, the biggest barrier African American students face is information. College admissions has become a crazy two-year process that most high school juniors begin with confusion, especially if their parents are not college graduates. But even when they are, unless counselors play an aggressive role, parents must — otherwise students get lost in the cracks. It is inexcusable that African American students don’t apply to college because they think they can’t afford it, what with the number of college scholarships available. And it is inexcusable that students truncate their dreams because they don’t know what’s available.

The results of these crippled dreams can be seen on campuses where the African American population is becoming less visible. Although the language is cliché, we may well have a vanishing African American student population on our nation’s largest campuses. And, there may be fewer places for Black students at HBCUs, as in the name of diversity more of them make room for White students.

There’s another troubling trend that contributes to the vanishing Black student syndrome. In a recent publication, “Losing our Future: How Minority Youth are Being Left Behind by the Graduation Rate Crisis,” Harvard’s Gary Orfield and his co-authors show that high school graduation rates are low in our nation —  just 68 percent of students graduate from high school. They are lowest for African Americans, only half of whom are now graduating from college. Young men had lower graduation rates than young women. But according to the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE), the data is incomplete and does not always fully capture the amount of racial disparity in graduation rates. AEE says “Congress has not made calculating graduation rates a priority, appropriating the National Center for Educational Statistics with only $1 million for graduation rate tracking.” In contrast, more than $400 million is allocated for testing under the No Child Left Behind legislation.

Low graduation rates, a lack of information for those who do graduate and a perceived hostile environment on some campuses cut the college matriculation rates of African American students, making them an endangered species on some campuses. It ought to be imperative for those who care —  on campus and in the community —  to make access to higher education a priority. 

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