A Higher Education Wake-Up Call

A Higher Education Wake-Up Call

Whoever wins the November election has a rough row to hoe where higher education is concerned. A recent report, “Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education,” produced by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, paints a troubling picture (see story, pg. 6). It identifies five ways of measuring higher education efficacy, and the report’s findings are especially cause for concern in the contemporary context of globalization.
According to the chairmen of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, former Govs. James Hunt (N.C.) and Garrey Carruthers (N.M.), “America is underperforming in higher education.
“In the highlighted areas of preparation, participation, affordability, benefits and completion, few states perform in an exemplary manner. Indeed, some states earn failing grades on one or more of the benchmarks. The areas of participation and affordability are especially troubling — 19 states have declined on indications of participation, with fewer young people enrolling in education beyond high school in the last decade; similarly, 17 states have declined on affordability indicators, while only two states have improved in that arena. The gap between White student participation and that of African Americans and Latinos has increased.”
In too many ways, higher education is a footnote in the battlefield that has become this electoral season. John Kerry and George W. Bush seem more interested in their war records than in fighting the war on illiteracy. While Bush seems especially focused on Swift Boat, not strong education, Kerry seems to have been forced into a place where he is stuck responding instead of setting an agenda. At the same time, if you tease the details of the two platforms, Kerry seems to offer more to students and their families than Bush does. Indeed, part of the higher education report card is predicated on improvements in the K-12 educational arena, and Bush’s sole contribution, the No Child Left Behind legislation, has been repudiated by many in his party because of its unfunded mandates and the burden it places on the states. I call the legislation, tongue-in-cheek, “Let Every Child Kiss My Behind,” because it shows utter contempt for the actual educational process, a child’s ability to learn, with its focus on testing and bureaucracy.
Bush may well have had good intentions when he proposed the NCLB legislation, but his overarching political agenda — to cut taxes to benefit the wealthy —  ultimately undermines it. The $200 billion he squandered on his foolish search for weapons of mass distraction in Iraq could have been spent funding K-12 education. If states got more money, they might be able to direct some of that money toward higher education. Only two states, Louisiana and Missouri, have improved their affordability index in the past decade. Would more states make higher education affordable with different federal policies?
This higher education report card has particular implications for the status of African Americans, especially African American men, given that greater access for these men to higher education means a better quality of life in the African American community. This generalized report does not deal, specifically, with the access of African American men, but it implies a series of questions about the toehold African Americans have on a higher education system that is fractured. When money is tight, access restricted and affirmative action under attack, is there a space for African American students in higher education?
How do historically Black colleges and universities fare under Democratic and Republican administrations? While the composition of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Historically Black Colleges may change, one hopes that the mission, to support HBCUs, remains the same. Still, it is fair to ask if partisan politics play a role in HBCU governance, and if colleges headed by Republican or independent presidents get a bigger break when Republicans are in power. It is also reasonable to ask if certain ideologies are supported or suppressed depending on the leadership that exists in the White House. While it is not unreasonable to expect partisan administrations to support those who support them, African American leaders in higher education need to ask themselves if they are required to be more obsequious than their White counterparts. If the president of Yale or Harvard or Princeton is not nudged to cut or paste his ideology to conform with administration leanings, should the president of Howard or Morehouse or Benedict be asked to do so?
Still, it is important to note that, for Black folks, the crisis in higher education is not a partisan crisis. African American students have matriculated with difficulty and under less than ideal conditions during the past decade largely because institutions of higher education have been inadequately funded during this time period. Bush has not had a stellar record in supporting higher education access and development; Kerry is likely to do better. But no one will produce for African Americans unless we participate in this election. 



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