ONE of the continuing challenges for the United States economy is bringing members of racial and ethnic minorities into the mainstream. A recent report from the American Council on Education indicates that some progress of recent years may be coming undone: specifically on the education front.
Although the absolute numbers of minority students enrolled in colleges and universities are rising, in percentage terms they are falling. The percentage of black 18-to-24-year-old high school students entering college, for instance, dropped from 34 in 1976 to 26 in 1985.
A particular problem is minority students choosing ``business'' careers instead of teaching. Unfortunately, the business careers are less likely to be as entrepreneurs - something the black community, especially, needs more of - and more likely to be as ``administrative assistants'' in offices. Moreover, fewer minority schoolteachers mean fewer educational role models for young blacks and Hispanics.
The council report calls all this a ``crisis of substantial dimensions.''
We share its concern.
Many minority students are opting for vocational education or the military, both of which can provide some combination of salable skills or financial aid. These paths may be perfectly appropriate for many young people. But the worry is that others pursuing them will end up selling themselves short: settling for a job that pays fairly well for now but has no real career track.
Many new jobs are indeed expected in various technical fields - but the real growth is expected in fields for which four years of college will be required. No one can predict how the workplace will evolve in the decades ahead. But a good liberal arts education, including not only certain subject matter but the basic skills of reading, writing, thinking, organizing, is sure to be an asset for any young person.
A certain lack of confidence in the quality of liberal arts education, and its ultimate value, may be a factor in young people's going for ``practical'' training instead. If so, the burden is on the institutions - if they are really to serve their communities - to push hard for excellence and to communicate the advantages of a four-year degree over a certificate from some institution that advertises on matchbook covers.
``The Army tells young people, `Be all you can be,''' says one researcher at the council. ``There's nothing like that in higher education. But we need it.''