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African Americans must revive commitment to higher education

Melvin B. Miller | 5/29/2014, 6 a.m.
The employment qualifications for jobs with a future more frequently include a college degree. Inspired by the opportunities, African Americans ...
“I’m working hard to beat the odds against students at my income level graduating.” Editor’s note: Just 25 percent of U.S. college freshmen from families in the bottom half of the income distribution will earn a degree by age 24. Photo by Dan Drew

The employment qualifications for jobs with a future more frequently include a college degree. Inspired by the opportunities, African Americans now enroll in college in greater numbers. However, statistics indicate that 40 percent of those who attend college as freshmen do not graduate in six years. The drop-out rate for community colleges is even higher — 50 percent. Those who leave college without a degree are left with substantial debt and no greater opportunity for employment.

A quick assumption might be that race is the primary factor determining the drop-out rate, but that is not the case. The best correlation is with the income of the students’ parents. Only about 25 percent of freshmen from families in the bottom half of the income distribution will earn a degree by age 24. Almost 90 percent of freshmen with parents with income in the top 25 percent will graduate. The level of income is the more significant determinant.

The University of Texas has decided to resolve this problem. It accepts applicants from the top 10 percent of any high school in the state. Since the drop-out rate of students from high schools in low income areas was unacceptably high, the administration launched a program to retain students. They decided to place in a special program every student with at least two of the following “adversity indicators”: low SATs, low family income, and less-educated parents. An article in The New York Times by Paul Tough provides an account of the program.

Many of those interested in helping to improve opportunities for blacks in education have inadvertently made the situation worse by overplaying emphasis on the problem. Sometimes talk about the education achievement gap makes it sound as though blacks students suffer from a learning disability. The strategy at UT was to “convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but you are confident they can succeed.”

The approach is to inspire confidence so that students believe they belong and are intellectually capable of performing the class work. They found at UT that with some support, students in the program performed as well as the students who did not have the problems that qualified them for special attention.

Unfortunately, many colleges have not yet developed a strategy to diminish those horrendous drop-out statistics. This was less of a problem in earlier decades. In 1950, only 6.25 percent of U.S. adults had earned a bachelor’s degree or more. The percentage of college educated blacks then was substantially less. But now 31.7 percent of American adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. This makes the employment environment very competitive.

From post-slavery days African Americans had an abiding belief in the value of education. Those few who were able to go to college were greatly respected. In some towns there were celebrations at the end of summer to honor and send off college students with the support of the community.

With the exception of the historically black colleges and universities, the black students did not really expect to be fully accepted. In fact they could not even be admitted to the segregated colleges, and their numbers elsewhere were too few to create a college community for blacks. Nonetheless, the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the spirit of the times served as sufficient motivation.

African Americans must regenerate a commitment to education and begin the process of preparing children for academic achievement from an early age. It is unwise to rest in the hope that other colleges will develop programs like the one at UT to motivate black students from families with modest incomes.