HIGHER education has been a prime means of transporting black Americans into the economic mainstream since the 1960s civil rights revolution. But that means may be sputtering a bit, according to recent statistics.
While the enrollment of African-Americans in colleges and universities has risen remarkably over the last three decades, the bulk of that growth came in the 1970s and slowed in later years. Today, some analysts see a widening gap in college attendance between black and white high school graduates.
At the same time, state financial aid is dwindling in many parts of the country, tuitions are rising at some public institutions, and efforts are under way to roll back affirmative-action programs, designed to correct the effects of racial discrimination.
In absolute numbers, the picture is not all grim. A December report by the American Council on Education (ACE) indicated a 27 percent gain in college enrollment among black high school graduates between 1982 and 1992, from 1.1 million students to 1.4 million. During that decade, women earned around 60 percent of all the degrees awarded African-Americans.
The number of black college and university students enrolled in the early '80s represented a gain of more than 100 percent over the number enrolled in the mid-'60s, ACE analyst Deborah Carter says. She estimates the black college population in the 1960s at only 500,000, mostly concentrated in black colleges and universities.
The gains in black enrollment during the '70s sprang largely from the onset of federal-grant programs aimed at low-income students, Ms. Carter says. Also important was an influx of black Vietnam veterans taking advantage of federal education benefits. By the mid-'70s, the bulk of African-American college enrollment had shifted from traditionally black schools to predominantly white institutions.
In 1976, 33 percent of black high school graduates in the US went to college, comparable to the rate of whites, according to the ACE report. And by 1993, the rate of college attendance by blacks had climbed back nearly to its 1976 level, but the rate among whites had risen to almost 42 percent, leaving a 10 percent gap.
Charles Willie, a sociology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., sees economic reasons behind declining gains in black enrollments since the 1970s. He cites a shift away from federal grants toward loans and the reluctance of low- or moderate-income blacks to go into debt for a college education.
Carter agrees. ``What's basically happening for African-Americans, more so than for whites, is that people who are doing a bit better economically have more children going to college ... while those on the margins are not going,'' she says. ``And a larger percentage of African-Americans are poor.''
California may be a case in point. The demand for higher education among blacks and Latinos is strong, says Joni Finney, associate director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, a research organization in San Jose. But tuitions at the state's extensive public-university system have more than doubled since 1990. The sharp rise in fees coincided with the state's worst recession since the Depression and with budget-forced cuts in state education aid.
Concurrently, a move is under way to put before the state's voters a ballot question that would prohibit public policies based on racial preference. Preferences based on other criteria, such as socioeconomic status, wouldn't be outlawed, so enrollment or hiring policies that would have the effect of helping blacks or other low-income minorities would still be allowed.
But some worry the move could inflame ethnic tensions already aroused by the passage last fall of Proposition 187, which denies government services to illegal aliens and which was perceived by many in the Latino community as a slap at all immigrants, not just illegals.