To encourage more blacks to attend and stay in college, elementary and secondary schools need to make college-preparatory courses available to more youngsters and expose them to experiences that will prepare them for college, says the director of a national conference in Baltimore this week.
"You don't start too soon in setting the sights of students," said Clinita Ford, director of the National Higher Education Conference on Black Student Retention.
"Finishing high school is one thing, but finishing high school in what we call a college-preparatory track is another," she said.
The theme of the sixth annual conference, which opened yesterday at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, is to entice black students into enrolling and graduating from college through collaborative programs with businesses, secondary schools and other academic institutions. Between 350 and 400 representatives from colleges and universities around the country are expected to have attended the conference by the time it concludes Wednesday.
Nationally, the number of black high school graduates has increased, but the number of blacks in college has remained low by comparison, Ford said.
Dorothy Terry, director of the developmental studies program at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, and Frances Outland, a teacher at G.L. Wiley Middle School in Waco, Texas, were at the conference to discuss the collaborative programs in their state. In Texas, 80,000 secondary students drop out each year, they said.
The Texas educators said they have seen improvement in test scores since they began a program six years ago that gives college students extra credit for tutoring middle-school students English, math and reading.
Florence Sulcer, a retention counselor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, said the problem of losing black college students before they graduate might be less severe than it appears to be because some who leave intend to return.
"Students drop out for various reasons, but at the same time students might eventually complete a college education," Sulcer said.
Ford, a professor at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, said one reason why some black students don't either start or complete a college education may be the lack of a "comfort zone" -- or a feeling of alienation -- on predominantly white campuses.
Black college students in predominantly white schools are far less likely to find instructors and professors of their own color than are their counterparts at historically black colleges, she said.
Eighty percent of black college students are in the more than 3,100 predominantly white schools in the country, but 97 percent of black educators teach at historically black colleges, said Ford.
"So you can see how much blackness a black student sees in the white college," said Ford.
Other reasons for recruitment and retention problems among black students include financial problems, poor preparation for standardized tests and a trend of attending only two-year colleges, Ford said.