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National Urban League Convention Considers College Success, K-12 Education Reform

WASHINGTON — The rough road to a college degree can be made smoother for first-generation and low-income students if society begins to step up support in the areas of academic support, mentoring and financial aid.

That was the message delivered by higher education, business and other leaders during a panel discussion Thursday at the National Urban League Conference’s 100th Anniversary Convention.

“A lot of students drop out of college because they don’t understand the geography and the environment,” said George Khaldun, chief administrative officer at the Harlem Children’s Zone, a New York-based initiative that features charter schools and a comprehensive array of services to students.

Khaldun spoke during a panel discussion titled “The College Crisis: Keeping Students on the Graduation Path.”

To help prepare Harlem’s Children Zone students for college, Khaldun said, officials at the initiative created Journey to College, an after-school program for middle and high school students that places a heavy emphasis on college readiness through extracurricular and other activities that range from martial arts to chess. The organization also created a College Success Office that keeps in touch with graduates who’ve gone on to college. 

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C., said the biggest barrier to college access and completion for low-income and first-generation college students is monetary.

She said many families have an aversion to taking out student loans and that aversion impacts their decisions on whether to finance or forgo higher education.

“There are too many students who are calling to say, ‘I can’t come back,’” Malveaux said of Bennett students who leave the school for financial reasons. She also lamented that minority-serving institutions have low endowments and thus less financial aid to offer students.

To remedy the problem, she said, she would have the federal government make Pell Grants cover the entire cost of a student’s education, no matter where the student attends school. The maximum Pell Grant for the 2010-11 academic year is $5,550.

George Greenidge, executive director of National Black College Alliance — a nonprofit organization of historically Black college and university alumni and students who mentor and support urban minority high school students on the path to college — took a different tact. He said students need to encouragement to become more academically competitive in order to finance their higher education.

“As and Bs are scholarships,” Greenidge said he tells students in the program. “Cs and Ds are loans.”

“I see a lot of students who show up and they’re Black and they think they deserve $20,000,” Greenidge said. His response: “You don’t get this (money for college) until you deserve this.”

Students also need to be taught more about the link between their academic decisions and how they relate to career options, said Jonathan Rochkind, director of Research at Public Agenda, a New York-based public opinion research organization that works on policy issues.

“It’s very easy for young people not to make the connection between the choices you make now and the consequences later,” Rochkind said. “The gap between what students want to do and what they know about what they need to get there is quite wide.”

Karl Reid, senior vice president of academic programs and Initiatives at the United Negro College Fund, said the scholarship organization is facing more demand for scholarships than it can supply.

“We had about 100,000 students apply for 10,000 scholarships,” Reid said.

Thursday’s discussion was just one of several events at the National Urban League Conference that focused on education. On Wednesday during a town hall discussion titled “The Past 100 Years of Achievement in Education,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the Obama Administration’s education initiatives, including the $4 billon Race to the Top competitive grant fund that critics say creates winners and losers in the realm of public education. Other speakers included the Rev. Al Sharpton, Princeton University professor Cornel West, Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman and Harlem Children’s Zone president Geoffrey Canada. The town hall vacillated on the merits of charter schools versus the need to keep public schools strong.

On Thursday, conference attendees heard from President Barack Obama, who touted investments and reforms his administration has made in higher education, such as the student loan overhaul that took banks out of the student loan process. He also commended Duncan and defended Race to the Top for school districts.

“I know there’s a concern that Race to the Top doesn’t do enough for minority kids, because the argument is, well, if there’s a competition, then somehow states or some school districts will get more help than others,” Obama said. “Let me tell you, what’s not working for Black kids and Hispanic kids and Native American kids across this country is the status quo.”

During the session “Public School and Private School Privilege: Education Reform in America,” on Wednesday, panelists discussed the challenges of K-12 education reform. Tomeka Hart, an elected member of the Memphis City School Board, said that while Memphis City Schools have lacked adequate funding, money should not be considered as the sole answer to turning around poor performing school districts. Hart placed some blame on parents for the failure of school systems.

“Parents come too late to meetings when (the school board is) about to make a decision. They must come on time before I have to vote yes to closing a school,” Hart said.

Although lack of parent engagement and proper funding affect schools, many parents were said to be highly worried about student discipline when dealing with the schools their children attend. Because of some students’ poor behavior in the classroom, one Baltimore Public School system official said, “it’s like students don’t want to learn anymore in my system.”

“All kids should be educated with quality across the board,” said Michael Wotorson, executive director of the Campaign for High School Equity, in response to the Baltimore school official.

As the session came to a close, Dr. Elsie Scott, CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation said, “In order for school systems to fully reform, it will take hard work, a commitment from everyone and an investment if we want the future generation to stay on top.”

Acquanetta G. Donnell contributed to this story.

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