REYNOLDS: Declining Black Enrollment

Too often, even when there is a bit of heaven shining through, some reports can't resist damning things to hell in a handbasket.For example, a new study by the nonprofit Southern Educational Foundation warns of a declining black enrollment on mainstream college campuses in the South.That may be true, but what about the numbers that say there has been a 43 percent increase in African-American enrollment from 1976 to 1995, and that today there are more blacks enrolled in higher education than at any time in history?What about numbers from the United Negro College Fund that say: "The nearly 1.4 million African American undergraduates represent 11 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in the nation's colleges and universities, and this is an 18 percent increase in African-American enrollment since 1990, compared with a 5 percent decrease for whites."The report from the Southern Education Foundation says: "What progress that has been made is halting and this progress -- modest and uneven as it has been -- is now threatened. The report contends that in nine of the 19 states studied, the proportion of college-age blacks attending public universities has declined in this decade. Also, the percentage of blacks who are earning bachelor's degrees in southern colleges is stagnant and is still far from matching the rate of whites."That, of course, is certainly not edifying, especially in a climate where in Texas and California an anti-affirmative action ethnic cleansing is underway. But the good news is that, despite some white colleges making it loud and clear they do not want black and brown students in their hallowed halls, and despite people of color attending schools with the poorest teachers, overcrowding and the least-experienced teachers, blacks are still seeing education as a way out and a way up.Yet what burns me up is that the report seems to indicate there is something distasteful about matriculating at black colleges and universities. The report says that the black students in the South who do earn degrees are choosing to do so outside of mainstream institutions. "In 13 of the 19 states, the study found that the majority of black freshmen still (emphais added) attend historically black colleges, not the flagship public universities that the authors of the report say often have the most academic resources and prove the best access to top-quality jobs after graduation," wrote the Washington Post.Why would anyone suggest there is something wrong with blacks still attending black colleges? First of all, mainstream institutions are often racist, hostile and negative to black students. Secondly many black colleges have a long-established tradition of churning out black leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Jesse Jackson to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It is little wonder significant numbers of blacks still see historically black colleges and universities as their first choice.As an alumna of two white colleges and one black, and having taught at both white and black colleges, I think it is wrong for researchers to distribute an attitude that assumes white universities would be such a magnet for blacks. At many white universities, blacks are treated as dysfunctional tokens, have to jump through hoops to prove they belong in academia and have to plea for acceptance into student organizations. And often, they are steered away from fields lucrative in status and monetary rewards. At many black colleges, staff and professors take a personal interest in students, serve as models of hard work and pass on values."It always amazes me how going to a black college is so often cast as a mistake," says Cheryl Fields, executive editor of Black Issues in Higher Education in Fairfax, Va. If we fall into the trap of believing there is something wrong if blacks still go to black colleges, what are we saying?" Dr. Dhyana Ziegler is interim vice president for academic affairs at Florida A& M University, which was recently voted College of The Year by Time Magazine and Princeton Review. She counters allegations that black colleges don't provide quality education and competitive resources. "Despite our not being allotted equal dollars that the flagship institutions receive, we still provide quality education. What good is it if the flagship institutions have the resources, but don't want to share them with black students in scholarships and in other areas."Even the inference that blacks may not find jobs at black colleges is highly suspect. As a former professor-in-residence at FAMU, I saw scores of recruiters trolling for young black journalists. And at the school's legendary School of Business and Industry, under the leadership of Dr. Sybil Mobley, Fortune 500 corporations are lined up with fat financial packages to hire school graduates.This is not to say that there are not serious gaps in white-black higher education levels. For example 46 percent of African-American undergrads are enrolled in two-year institutions, compared with 40 percent of white undergraduates. But considering the legacy of segregation and today's anti-affirmative climates, the levels of achievement black colleges and black students are reaching are worth cheering.


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