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Educational opportunity at the crossroads: New York State vs College Students of Color

By Blanca E. Vega, Doctoral Candidate at Columbia University's Teacher's College, Race-Talk contributor The days of openly supporting the educational ambitions of students of color are gone. More and more institutions of higher education continue to feel the threat of lawsuits and speculations of color consciousness if they uphold programs that specifically reach out to students of color. Prior to the 1960’s these programs, scholarships, and opportunities were once local mechanisms used by institutions to educate students of color, particularly Black students. Intervention from federal and state government on these issues was spearheaded by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. The administration’s “War on Poverty” agenda focused on two main issues in education: academic and economic disadvantage. Although racial “disadvantage” in education was not included as a tenet, many of the students who happen to participate in opportunity programs in New York tend to be Black or Hispanic. What are opportunity programs? Why are they important today? In this article I will provide an overview of these programs and lay out the importance of their continued funding – and a call for greater advocacy for college students of color in other states. Outreach programs, or opportunity programs, are designed to assist students from low income and first-generation college backgrounds to succeed in higher education [1]. Some of these outreach programs once served as a bridge for students of color, specifically African American students to higher education [2]. In the last forty years, through federal, state, and private funding, opportunity programs have supported millions of students nation wide. Yet these programs continuously suffer the threat of budget cuts, lack of administrative support, and poor evaluation and assessment methods to measure success amongst participants. Because they have proven to be supportive and resourceful for many students, especially students of color, ensuring their continued support and existence remain an imperative in our educational landscape. Between 1964 and 1979, the number of students of color and students who were economically and academically disadvantaged increased dramatically in postsecondary institutions. After the 1980’s the educational landscape dramatically changed. Cost of tuition increased and financial aid did not proliferate to meet the demands of rising tuition. Within financial aid, merit based scholarships and loans escalated – need based philosophies no longer seemed applicable in the minds of higher education policymakers who themselves benefitted from such policies such as the G.I. Bill. Meanwhile, opportunity programs saw decreases in their budgets which meant they were able to educate fewer and fewer students. Additionally, the outreach programs that have survived this era of colorblindness in higher education tend to be the ones that do not include race as a criterion for selecting students. Why is race an important consideration in educational policy? Students of color who come from low-income backgrounds face many challenges in their pursuit of higher education. Many attend poorly funded, racially segregated schools, have serious concerns about the affordability of higher education, come from families whose parents have low educational attainment, and often lack academic preparation that would guide them for a college experience. Outreach programs address these factors that are obstacles to college access for many students. Additionally, outreach programs can serve as institutional agents providing information such as tutoring, career exploration, academic enrichment, college admissions, and financial aid – all key to the college choice process. Because students of color tend to graduate from poorly funded high schools, these students often do not have the resources readily available to them during the college choice process. The impact of this lack of resources is evident: first generation, low income, students of color continue to experience low enrollment rates and high attrition rates in high school and college. Unfortunately, race and class always seem to be pitted against each other. Opportunity programs clearly demonstrate how these two social structures are interrelated. Over 75% of students in programs such as the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) are Black and Latin. Research on class affirmative action versus racial considerations in affirmative action has already demonstrated that choosing class preferences will largely favor Whites. Federal and state supported opportunity programs have only used class as a determination for admission. Yet, the majority of these students are students of color. So what is the difference? The difference lies in the opposing missions of opportunity programs versus higher education. Institutions of higher education who employ racial considerations in affirmative action desire “admissible” students. Opportunity programs desire those who are deemed inadmissible but with the potential for academic success. Thus without opportunity programs, colleges and universities would be left with fewer resources and advocates to admit, prepare, and retain students of color. These programs attempt with their meager budgets to truly leave no child behind in education access and success. Federally funded opportunity programs such as Upward Bound, and Talent Search, Student Support Services and state funded programs such as HEOP and Liberty Partnerships Programs(found in New York), Educational Opportunity Programs (found in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California), and many others continuously face budget cuts despite their charge of ensuring that educational nor economic disadvantage should deter students from pursuing postsecondary education. These are the programs that go after students who desire the opportunity for higher education. Many K-12 institutions sit and wait for students to come through their doors. Meanwhile, college admissions officers are charged with recruiting a certain type of student -- “admissible” students. Opportunity programs purposefully reach out to their surrounding communities and literally bring their students in. Opportunity programs know that success does not just mean educating students who are already successful – it means educating the students that K-16 surreptitiously want to leave behind. Today, there is an assault on children of color and educational access and success. In New York for example, soon after Governor Patterson announced his cuts to the education budget, the MTA announced their plans for taking away students’ transportation cards. Soon after, the Board of Education announced that nineteen public schools would be phased out. The ones who will suffer the most in this already hostile environment will be children of color. While all students will be affected by cuts to the education budget, this crisis is felt deeply in the minds and souls of Black and Latino students who continuously face an assault on their education. In addition to shedding more light on the impact of outreach/opportunity programs, there is also a call to consider one more tenet in addition to the academic and economic disadvantage in educational opportunity: racial disparities in the education gap. Educators and policy makers must not be afraid to place race at the top of the educational policy agenda. Finally, there is a desperate need to understand and uncover the caste system developed by policymakers due to its colorblind agenda. Who are the undesirables? Who is taking care of them? What is happening in your states? The programs that are working hard to take care of these undesirable students are the very ones now being cut. We can no longer sit here and only ask why.
[1] Perna, L.& Swail,W.S.(2001). Pre-College outreach and early intervention. The NEA higher education journal, 99-110. [2] Bowen, W. G., & Bok, D. (1998). The shape of the river: Long-term con- sequences of considering race in college and university admissions. Prince- ton, NJ: Princeton University Press.