Why Southern Blacks Skip College

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Voscia Walker almost didn't make it through college. A few years ago, the young African-American considered leaving the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to help her mother. Ms. Walker stayed, though, convincing her mom that an education was crucial to her success.

Walker is now working toward a master's degree in organizational communication. She also volunteers for Students Making It Lighter Everyday (SMILE), a program that assigns incoming minority freshmen a peer counselor to guide them through the first year of college.

Retention programs like SMILE are essential in assisting African-Americans to stay in college. As the 21st century approaches, college degrees remain elusive for many African-Americans, especially in the South.

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The percentage of black students enrolling in public universities and colleges is on the decline after years of gains on college campuses in 19 states, which previously operated segregated systems. Furthermore, the percentage of African-Americans earning bachelor's degrees increased from 8.5 percent to just 10.3 percent between 1976 and 1995, according to The Miles to Go report by the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta.

"It's important for freshmen, especially black freshmen, to know what programs like tutoring and financial aid are out there for them so that they know college doesn't have to be so tough on them," says Walker. "A lot of blacks get frustrated and just drop out."

In fact, two years after they graduated from high school, only one-fourth of African-Americans were enrolled in college, according to Michael Nettles, executive director of the United Negro College Fund's Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, which researches educational opportunities for African-Americans.

African-Americans continue to struggle with access to higher education for myriad reasons. The obvious one is money. The average black family income in the 19 states was less than two-thirds of the average white family income in 1995. In 12 states, 30 percent of all African-American families had incomes under $10,000.

ERIC JACKSON wanted to go to college, but his grade point average wasn't high enough to earn a scholarship. Grants seemed too complicated, and at 18 he got a job at a local Burger King. "I didn't have the grades or the money to get into school," says Mr. Jackson. "It looks like it won't happen."

His family, like many other lower-income blacks, saw college as a luxury, like a car or a gold necklace. "If I got in, great. If I didn't, well, they weren't going to be cashing in some stock to send me, because there was no stock to cash."

Financial aid at traditionally white institutions often target students from middle-class families. But that is changing in a number of Southern states. For example, Georgia has dramatically expanded student financial aid through its HOPE scholarship program.

Founded in 1993 and funded by the state lottery, HOPE covers tuition and fees for all students at the state's public institutions.

Claire Handley, associate director of Education Opportunity and Postsecondary Desegregation Program for the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, praises both Georgia and Maryland for their efforts to prepare black high school students for college. "States have thus far not connected with what is happening in higher education," says Ms. Handley. "Aside from the financial aid, African-American students simply aren't taking the classes in K-12 like foreign languages and math classes that prepare them for college."

Large numbers of African-American students still depend on historically black colleges and universities for access. In Florida, 48.5 percent of all first-time, full-time African-American freshmen at four-year institutions entered the state's system through historically black Florida A&M in 1996.

Southern states have simply made insufficient progress in desegregating colleges and universities, Handley says. This is despite a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that recognized the persistence of racial inequity in public education in 19 states.

Even if African-Americans enroll in college, they may find themselves dropping out, at least temporarily. The reason is usually financial. "If kids get their foot in the door at any college, it's usually either about money or making the grades when they drop out," says Jaquator Hamer, assistant dean for Multicultural Student Services at the University of Arkansas.

At Little Rock's Philander Smith College, for example, 52 percent of black students do not return for their sophomore year.

Even at black colleges, the dropout rate is high, Dr. Nettles says. Again, the reason is usually economic. Cultural roadblocks, like a high rate of pregnancy and crime among young African-Americans, seldom play into dropout rates. These more likely hinder initial entrance into college.

"These problems don't affect just the South or African-Americans," says Handley. "They affect all of us.... The bottom line is that states are not doing enough to aid African-Americans toward entering college and then following through on completion. That has to change for progress."

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