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Celebrating and deconstructing our educational progress

A recent Census Bureau report has good news about African American
education. In Educational Attainment in the United States, the Census
Bureau reported that 86.2 percent of African Americans ages twenty-five
to twenty-nine were high school graduates in 1997, continuing an upward
trend in the educational attainment of African Americans that began in

For Whites between twenty-five and twenty-nine, the high school
completion rate was 87.6 percent, meaning there is no statistically
significant gap in the high school completion rates between African
Americans and Whites. In other words, as far as high school completion
is concerned, there is statistical parity between the youngest adult
cohort of African Americans and Whites.

My first reaction to this data was pleasure. It is not that this
smaller gap is unexpected — it has been closing for decades. It is
just that when we look at the distance we have come, this small gap is
amazing. In 1940, for example, 26 percent of Whites but only 7 percent
of African Americans over age twenty-five were high school graduates.
Considering the youngest group of adults, those twenty-five to
twenty-nine, 41.2 percent of Whites, compared to 12.3 percent of
African Americans, were high school graduates. In a fifty-seven year
period, the number of Whites graduating high school has more than
doubled, while the number of African Americans has increased sevenfold.
No matter how you slice it, that’s progress!

Of course, high school attainment doesn’t mean much in a high-tech
world where more education than high school is needed. So I’m hoping
that educators will not use these data to suggest that enough has been
done to improve African American educational attainment.

However, I’ve already heard that line run by one of my conservative
counterparts in the world of punditry. Eventually, she said, all the
gaps will narrow. You don’t need affirmative action or special programs
to help.

She could not be more wrong. Although the gap has narrowed with
college completion, proportionately, twice as many Whites as African
Americans finish college. According to this latest data, for
twenty-five- to twenty-nine-year-olds, 28.9 percent of Whites and 14.1
percent of African Americans have completed college (the college
completion rate is much higher — at 40 percent for Asian Americans; it
is also a somewhat lower 10 percent for Hispanics).

While these numbers are slightly higher for young adults than for
the overall population, the success we have had in graduating teens
from high school has not translated into success in getting high school
graduates of color into — and out of — college.

What role does affirmative action play? It identifies potential
students, provides them with financial aid, and develops programs to
support them through their undergraduate years. Affirmative action may
shape the admissions process, especially when the process has inherent
biases that result in the kind of enrollment rates we can measure —
such as African Americans constituting some 8 percent of the population
in California but less than 2 percent of the admitted freshman class.

There is a difference between high school completion and college
completion. For one thing, high school attendance is compulsory. High
school attendance is also free. At the college level, on the other
hand, tuition can range into the tens of thousands of dollars a year.
While there is quality, low-cost higher education through the public
universities in most states (except for the University of the District
of Columbia, which has endured cuts and the indifference of Congress
and the city’s financial control board for at least three years), many
states are slamming doors on those who have completed high school but
fail to meet their “requirements” for matriculation.

Why do so many students of color fail to meet these requirements?
One might only look at the quality of their high school education and
the resources available for their education, which sometimes suggests
that even when equivalent numbers of African Americans and Whites
graduate from high school, educational parity has not yet been
attained. When inner-city high schools (and twenty-eight urban school
districts educate the majority of African American youngsters) have
lower per-pupil spending than their surrounding suburbs, is there any
surprise in differences in achievement?

I know folks who will read this column as one long whining,
lamenting complaint. It is not. It is both a celebration and an
examination of where we are now. Any time gaps close, it is incumbent
on those who fight for change to acknowledge that change happens.
However, it is also important to analyze what change means.

In the realm of high school completion, the closing of the gap
between Blacks and Whites means that most Americans now have a basic
educational certification — and perhaps, basic educational skills.
This is an improvement for both African Americans and Whites over
fifty-five years ago.

At the same time, the attainment of this basic certification means less now than it did three generations ago.

Thus, we must now turn our attention to the accessibility of
postsecondary education, both at the college and postgraduate level,
and in vocational and technical education. And, at the risk of “bean
counting,” we must look to close gaps in attainment at those
educational levels as well. To do otherwise would be to fall short of
the mighty goals some visionaries articulated when they began the
struggle for civil rights in the educational arena.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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