A New, and Improved, View of the South - Higher Education

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A New, and Improved, View of the South

by Black Issues

A New,  and Improved, View of the South
A 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.

A Divergent Assessment
With this report, The College Fund has painted a picture of Black progress in higher education that is far different from that portrayed by others monitoring the trends.
The Southern Education Foun-dation’s (SEF) 1998 Miles to Go study documented continuing disparities between African Americans and Whites in higher education institutions in the South (see Black Issues, Sept. 17, 1998). Miles to Go focused solely on public institutions and, for the most part, on the traditionally White colleges and universities. The SEF report paid short shrift to the public historically Black colleges and universities and left out the institutions where a large proportion of African Americans attend, namely community colleges and the private HBCUs.
The College Fund/UNCF, formerly called the United Negro College Fund, is a development organization that represents the private HBCUs. Its report says that when all that additional data is
examined, “during the past two decades, African American gains in higher education enrollments and degrees awarded in the South have exceeded the gains of Whites in the same region, have exceeded the gains of African Americans in each of the other three regions outside the southern United States, and have been greater than the gains of African Americans in the nation as a whole.”
Robert Kronley, senior consultant to the Southern Education Foundation, said he welcomed this new look at the data, but defended the approach that Miles to Go took.
“There have always been a significant number of African Americans enrolled in college in the South, because we had the private historically Black colleges and universities. The existence of those institutions is crucial. If that is what the report says, I think it’s terrific,” Kronley says.
However, he adds, the purpose of the SEF report was to look at whether the southern states have met their obligation under the Fordice case. In Fordice, the Supreme Court ruled that the South’s public colleges and universities remain segregated, and ordered the states to provide remedies — including equalizing funding to, and programs at, the public institutions, and desegregating their student and faculty bodies.
The Fordice ruling deals only with public institutions, and primarily with four-year institutions, which is why the Miles to Go report focused on them, Kronley says. And when those are the institutions looked at, he says, “representation has barely budged in two decades.”
In doing its analysis, The College Fund considered as “southern” all 19 states that had at one time segregated systems of higher education and that continue to have HBCUs (see box above for list). These are the same states studied in Miles To Go.
One of the limitations of the data, acknowledges Dr. Laura W. Perna, one of Nettles’ co-authors, is that it follows the federal IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data. That means, for example, that a midwestern student who attends college in the South would be a tally mark for the southern region, not the Midwest.
“It’s not a big limitation,” Perna says. “Most students attend college in their own state. But it is a limitation.”
The IPEDS are considered the best source of information for enrollment and degree attainment data available.Community Colleges
The College Fund study also documents that African Americans are helping swell enrollments at community colleges throughout the nation — and particularly in the South, where enrollments increased among all groups by
80 percent between 1976 and 1996,
from 1,130,858 to 2,038,709. African American enrollment in community colleges increased by 83 percent over that time, from 177,238 to 323,969.
One of the worries about the increasing enrollments of African Americans in community colleges is that the two-year colleges will be end-points rather than funnels into four-year institutions. And to some extent, the report documents that, saying that 23 percent of White students but only 7 percent of African American students who first enrolled in a public two-year college in the South in 1989 had transferred to a four-year institution within five years. This compares unfavorably with the national figures that show that 15 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Whites had transferred to a four-year college within five years.
“A word about community colleges,” Kronley says. “They may be good places to get access to higher education. They are not yet good places in terms of African American persistence to four-year colleges.”
For that reason, Kronley says, he does not consider it a cause for celebration that more African Americans are in community colleges.
“There are people who are not interested in four-year degrees, and that’s fine as long as the choice is unfettered,” he says. “I’m not sure that choice is yet unfettered.”Faculty Trends
In terms of faculty representation, the College Fund report found that as of 1995, a higher percentage of full-time faculty are African Americans in the South (6.8 percent) than in the Northeast (4.6 percent), Midwest (3.1 percent), or the West (2.5 percent). However, some of that higher proportion can be explained by the fact that many African American faculties in the South are teaching at HBCUs. When only traditionally White institutions in the South are counted, the percentage of African American faculty drops a little lower than the Northeast (4.1 percent).
Although the report states categorically that in many ways the South is doing better than the rest of the nation in terms of enrollments and degree attainments, it also documents continuing gaps. For example, of the entire population of traditional college-age residents of the South, African Americans are 20 percent. Yet they represent only 14.8 percent of the undergraduates attending four-year colleges and universities and 16.5 percent of the first-time full-time freshmen attending four-year colleges.
“Continued attention and effort are needed by both public and private colleges and universities throughout the nation and each of the four regions to increase access and opportunity for African Americans to enter and succeed,” the report concludes.       

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