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Widening the Access Gap

Widening the Access Gap
By Julianne Malveaux

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently

released a policy alert that projects declining income for United States workers if education does not improve. The report hinges on two facts: The U.S. workforce is becoming more diverse, and the country’s least educated racial/ethnic groups are among the fastest growing. The policy alert concludes that if these trends continue and states do not improve the education of all racial/ethnic groups, the skills of the workforce and the incomes of U.S. residents will begin to decline over the next two decades.

From a policy perspective, the rational response to a report like this would be to target rapidly growing populations — concentrated in fewer than half of all states — and increase efforts to have these populations graduate from high school and enter college. Instead, the U.S. Department of Education has a new plan to provide college aid, focusing on high-achieving students at schools with comprehensive curricula. This appears to be a case of rewarding the already able, instead of assisting those who need additional help.

As reported by Sam Dillon in The New York Times (January 22, 2006), the Education Department’s current budget includes $790 million in grant money to distribute to college-bound students who study math and science or who complete a “rigorous secondary school program of study.” Modeled after a Texas program called Texas Scholars, the
program would only provide money to students from “qualifying schools.” Instead of adding money to the Pell grant, as President Bush promised when he ran for office in 2000, this new program would provide money only to “select students” who attended “quality schools.” Clearly this program does not deal with the process by which quality schools are created and ignores those excellent students who attend schools that don’t pass muster.

Educational excellence is certainly important, and some states have distinguished between “excellent” graduates and others with Regent’s diplomas (New York), “advanced studies diplomas” (Virginia) or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. That’s a good thing. But we know that African-Americans and Latinos are less likely than other racial and ethnic groups to attain these honors, and that the schools they attend often do not even provide AP or IB courses. So the new program is leaving lots of Black and Brown students behind when it comes to getting student aid.

Why would the Department of Education attempt to widen the access gap at a time when education policy analysts are saying that these gaps need to be narrowed if our nation is to maintain its standard of living? Perhaps our national standard of living is not the focus of this administration. Perhaps it is solely dedicated to maintaining the standards enjoyed by the few. But the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education makes the case that our fates are intertwined, and that we can’t disadvantage the few without disadvantaging the nation.

The very ambitious legislation is being proposed at a time when the White House has been slashing programs that help people at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale. While its educational objectives may be laudable, there are big question marks about legislation that Republicans developed with hardly any Democratic input. Absent bipartisan participation in the development of this new program, one must raise questions about its political intent. There are also questions about the role the federal government will play in determining which schools are “qualifying” and which curricula are “rigorous,” given the vague language that accompanies the legislation.

Meanwhile, the center has detailed the educational gaps that need to be closed. Seventy-five percent of Whites who graduated from high school in 2001 did so within four years of starting high school. Just 49 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Hispanics graduated in that same time frame. Nearly half (48 percent) of Whites entered college right after high school, compared to just 27 percent of African-Americans and Latinos. While a quarter of White college students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, just 9 percent of Blacks and 10 percent of Latinos did. Why? Clearly, there may be differences in curriculum, in school quality and in parental support that determine who finishes high school on time.

And of course, there are financial pressures as well. Too many students of color work too many hours to finance education, and this workload affects academic performance. The bottom line is that even though the data suggests that the faster growing populations of Blacks and Latinos will change the composition of our labor force, little has been done policywise to address this reality.

The Education Department may have another $790 million to distribute for student financial aid. Who will get the money? This new program appears to have been built with several layers of implicit bias. Why not spend some of the money ensuring that more high schools, especially inner-city high schools, can provide top-quality academic offerings? The administration that produced No Child Left Behind is at it again, widening the access gap.

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