A New, and Improved, View of the SouthA just-released College Fund/UNCF report says southern states are leading the way in higher education access for African Americans
By Karin Chenoweth
A new report issued by The College Fund/UNCF not only confirms that more African Americans are attending college and receiving degrees than ever before — it also challenges previous assertions by others that the southern states trail the rest of the nation in this area of racial progress.“I’d like the South to be encouraged about the progress that has been made and encouraged to make more,” says the principal author of the report, Dr. Michael T. Nettles, the head of the UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, and a professor of education at the University of Michigan. “I would like us to have, instead of a sense of hopelessness and despair, a sense of achievement and a sense that we can do more.” The report, African Americans Moving Forward in Higher Education, was released on Feb. 11. It sifts through reams of educational statistics, analyzing the number of African Americans who are enrolled in two- and four-year, public and private institutions, as well as those in graduate and professional schools. It also looked at faculty members at all institutions.The study finds that gains by African Americans in higher education enrollment and degree attainment have been steady and dramatic. In 1996, African Americans, for the first time, represented 11.3 percent of all first-time, full-time freshmen. In the South, 83,145 African Americans represented 16.5 percent of all first-time, full-time freshmen. Although this falls short of full representation — African Americans are 14.3 percent of the traditional college-age population nationally and 20 percent in the South — it represents significant gains from previous decades. “It’s important for society to get a real sense of the desire and interest of African Americans to pursue education in general and higher education in particular,” says Nettles, who was recently named as vice chair of the National Assessment Governing Board. Nettles adds that he hopes this data may “inspire people who are thinking about going to college to see that this is the trend and the right direction, and its happening all over the country.”One of the major findings of the report is that most first-time African American freshmen attending four-year colleges and universities are in the South — 67 percent, to be exact. And over the last two decades, while the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African Americans grew nationally by 52 percent, they grew by 62 percent in the South. This compares with 36 percent in the Northeast, 39 percent in the Midwest, and 50 percent in the West — making the South the national leader.This is similarly true at the doctoral level. The number of doctoral degrees earned by African Americans in the South increased by 65 percent in the last decade, compared to 24 percent in the Northeast, 66 percent in the Midwest, and 46 percent in the West.It is at the doctoral level that The College Fund sounds an alarm, however, noting that African Americans are severely underrepresented, with only 3.5 percent of the 44,672 doctorate degrees granted nationally in 1996 — and about half of them are in fields, such as education, that primarily lead to public school administration rather than post-secondary faculty positions.“We have a long way to go,” Nettles says. “Much more needs to be done to encourage people to go on.” Programs specifically designed to assist African American scholars through doctoral programs that are supported by such organizations as the Mellon and Kellogg foundations, and the Southern Regional Education Board, Nettles says, have been enormously important in increasing the number of African American doctoral recipients. But, he adds, it is often difficult to convince college students of the benefits of pursuing graduate education, with four or five additional years of postponing full-time work and with uncertain future opportunities.“You have to be committed to a life of scholarship,” he says.
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