Columns » Max Brantley

Needed: black colleges

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In the fall of 1985, I entered the University of Georgia. This was the bicentennial year for the oldest public university in the nation, but just 24 years after court-ordered desegregation. So I was part of a relatively new phenomenon, and experienced some hostilities first-hand. As a fresh-man, I “received” my first racial epithet hurled after an intramural football game.

Twenty years later, racial tension on college campuses nationwide has continued, according to a recent Diverse Issues in Higher Education ar-ticle, “Toxic Campus Climate.” A black woman student received an e-mail saying, “You will die if you run for student government.” One school’s students held a “Straight Thuggin’ Party” wearing chains and handcuffs while listening to 50 Cent.

And yet, millions of dollars are spent every year enticing black students to attend campuses that are, or may be toxic. Students are told that these campuses have the best of everything — facilities, faculty, even food. Believing the hype, they enroll. And then they fail. The six-year graduation rate for black students is 42 percent, while 62 percent for white students. Eighty percent of black students attend majority white schools.

Now there is nothing wrong with black students attending majority institutions. I graduated from three, one of which was 3 percent black and where I could go the entire day and not see another black face! But we need to emphasize finding the best FIT for student success. For many black students, historically black colleges and universities are the answer.

For over 150 years, HBCUs have provided an environment unduplicated in higher education that best suits many students. When many places had laws and rules preventing black students from attending college, HBCUs (which never discriminated based on race) educated peo-ple who made significant contributions to this country.

Americans want to forget that now and “move on.” Instead of looking at HBCUs as a reminder of a troublesome past, we need to embrace them as a solution for the future. We are rapidly moving toward a workforce dominated by people of color. If this new workforce has less education, they will earn less and spend less. It is predicted that our economy may collapse relying on a low-wage, low-educated workforce.

We must ensure that more people earn a degree, rather than wasting resources sending them to a place that may not fit. The 20-point gradua-tion gap is appalling today, and sadly, greater than when I was in college. This is due to the massive marketing of higher education. Students (and parents) choose the image being sold. For many, especially black students, image does not guarantee graduation. Incidentally, between 2000 and 2004, Philander Smith College enrolled only 6.9 percent of all black collegians in Arkansas, yet produced 9.2 percent of the black graduates.

Let’s try something new. To close the graduation gap, aggressively expose ALL students to HBCUs, help them find a good fit, and then pro-vide resources to attend that school. Critics will argue this simply funds a segregated education, but consider the results: Blacks graduate one-third less often than whites at majority schools. Which is more important — the appearance of diversity or more black college graduates?

Give HBCUs a chance to do what we do best, which is make America stronger.

Dr. Walter Kimbrough is president of historically black Philander Smith College. Max Brantley is on vacation.

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