What's the most important issue facing American colleges today: Costs? Academics? Scandals in athletics? Drugs? None of the above, important as each is, says Richard Berendzen, president of American University here in Washington. It's the declining minority student enrollment, primarily among blacks, at most predominantly white colleges in the United States, he says.
The decline in black college students comes as the percentage of minorities in the general population is rising. By the end of this century ``roughly 40 percent of all high school-age youths will be black, Hispanic, or Asian,'' Dr. Berendzen told a small group of reporters at a luncheon. ``But less than 10 percent of public school teachers are minority. ... One of the most pressing issues of our day is to think how we can serve all of our people well in education.''
The implications are ominous for America, he says. Unless the trend is turned around, minorities will be unable to compete for jobs in an economy that will increasingly require more education and training, Berendzen warns. A larger number of minorities would then be ``unemployed, dispirited, and dangerous'' to society, he says.
Colleges themselves also face negative fallout. ``As we look for professors in the future, [minority] faculty to be role models [to minority students], where will we turn'' to find them? he asks.
Beyond decreasing enrollment lies another problem: a high college dropout rate. Of those black students who do enroll in predominantly white colleges, nearly four of every five ``drop out before their senior year,'' Berendzen says. In predominantly black colleges the dropout rate is much lower.
As a consequence of declining enrollment and high dropout rate, in some advanced fields few black Americans are obtaining PhDs. In 1986, only five black Americans gained PhDs in computer science, says Berendzen.
Causes of the declining black enrollment are fairly easy to discern, he says, but solutions are not.
``The major explanation'' for the decrease ``is money,'' he says. Although the slide in black enrollment began during the 1970s, he says that in 1980 it accelerated, ``due undoubtedly to cutbacks in financial aid'' by the federal government.
Another important factor is: ``not thinking in long-term perspectives,'' which Berendzen says is a condition of poverty, rather than race. Families for whom survival is a constant struggle often find it extremely difficult to think in long terms, such as four years for college and more years to pay off loans.
One more possible cause: College presidents probably ``have not been'' adequately sensitive to the problem. Even today, race relations cannot be taken for granted, he says.
Berendzen is not certain how to solve the problem. ``But you've got to start with a very, very young child.'' He would spend more money and effort on preschool and early-school education.
The American University president says he would strive to improve the educational preparation of black students throughout their school years; it is now so often inadequate as to constitute a ``very painful problem.''
Teen pregnancy rates, which he says are ``the highest percentage in the industrialized world,'' must be reduced.
More federal aid should be provided for education. He sees this not as idealism but as ``striking at the heart of pragmatism in this country,'' given the prospective problems unless black enrollment is raised.
Finally, ``we should have clear linkages'' between colleges and inner-city schools, so that black students will have before them the realistic prospect that they can attend a predominantly white institution and be able to feel comfortable there.