An elderly African American woman once said to me, “Son, we must
always worry about our freedom. If we don’t, we will look up and our
freedom will be gone.” Reflecting on the current status of African
Americans in higher education, her words remain quite appropriate.
The July 10, 1997 edition of Black Issues in Higher Education
contained a report on the leading institutional producers of African
American baccalaureate degree recipients (“Top 100 Degree Producers:
The Meaning Behind the Numbers”). But there is additional meaning
behind those numbers which should give African Americans considerable
cause to worry about their freedom.
Over time — with the Emancipation Proclamation, the acquisition of
voting rights, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on “separate but equal,”
and the implementation of affirmative action — there occurred a modest
easement of those forces which served to keep most African Americans
living as separate and unequal American citizens. But as we prepare for
the dawn of the twenty-first century, yet another sinister
disenfranchising force is increasingly operative — namely, the
intellectual disenfranchisement of African Americans.
Our society has been increasingly characterized as highly
scientific, technical, and information oriented. Tremendous importance
is placed on graduates from the natural sciences, health sciences,
engineering, computer sciences, business, and other
quantitatively-based fields of study. These are also fields in which
African Americans continue to be significantly under-represented.
Consider, for example, the failure to participate equally in the
use of computer technology. The term “falling through the net” has been
used often in reference to women, people of color, rural, and
low-income people who do not have equal access to the educational and
economic benefits of this emerging new technology. While wealthier
public schools are rapidly making it normative to have computers
available for all their students, the poorer schools suffer with either
no computers or very limited access for their students. As the work
world relies increasingly on computer technology and the skills related
to the use of such technology — and as computers increasingly permeate
all levels of formal education — African Americans are becoming
increasingly intellectually disenfranchised.
Without significant academic intervention — particularly related
to mathematics — African Americans will not become chemists,
biochemists, physicists, mathematicians, physicians, pharmacists,
nurses, accountants, engineers, computer scientists, public health
scientists, dentists, and information scientists. They also will not be
able to do advanced work in social science fields that require
considerable psychometric training — such as political science,
psychology, and sociology.
It is essential that African Americans make sure that the majority
of [Black] students are not graduating in fields with low societal
demand, with cumulative GPAs that are significantly lower than those
for the institution as a whole, or at slower rates than the
As colleges and universities address their financial exigencies, we
cannot permit African American students to be “financial cannon
fodder.” We cannot permit increased African American student enrollment
to occur juxtaposed with low retention rates, low graduation rates, low
cumulative GPAs, under-representation in high-demand fields, and high
educational debt. Such allowances render these graduates competitively
Now is the time to explore further the meaning behind the numbers
of African American college graduates. We need to compare African
American students with other students and find out if [Black] college
graduates have the same or higher graduation and retention rates,
cumulative GPAs, graduate and professional school participation rates,
work opportunities, representation in high-demand fields of study, and
other educational outcomes.
The true meaning behind the numbers has to do with whether the
leading institutional producers of African American baccalaureate
degree recipients are quantitatively and qualitatively “making good” on
higher education as an individual and collective freedom strategy or
whether we are simply involved in a rather sophisticated numbers game?
The real meaning behind the numbers is related to whether or not higher
education is providing “open doors” or merely “revolving doors” for
African American students.
Dr. Jack L. Daniel Vice Provost of Academic Affairs, University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
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