BY SPEAKING at Morgan State University's commencement program last Sunday, President Clinton provided a powerful symbolic message about the importance of higher education to African Americans. Historically black colleges and universities such as Morgan attract students on their own merit. For too long, though, they also have provided recourse for African Americans denied entrance into white institutions.
Court decisions have made it harder to use race as a criteria to recruit students. As a result, predominantly black schools still offer the best chance for an affordable college education for many African Americans. You can argue whether that is good or bad. Not debatable is the growing need for more than a high school diploma to succeed in a nation with eroding opportunities for those with low-skill jobs.
New statistics showing little change since 1975 in the percentage of African-American high school graduates who go on to college are distressing. The American Council on Education reports 35 percent of black high school graduates ages 18 to 24 years old were enrolled in college in 1995 compared with 32 percent in 1975. Somewhat surprising, the percentage of whites in that age group attending college in 1975 also stood at 32 percent. But the figure for whites has since climbed to 43 percent.
Some of the most dramatic results of court rulings limiting colleges' ability to seek black and other minority students can be seen in the nation's law schools. Enrollment at the universities of California and Texas have been hit hard. But Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland Law School, says it, too, has been hampered. Maryland still considers the race of applicants, but it is only one factor and does not immediately come into play.
The UM law school has seen African-American first-year students drop from 49 to only 28 in two years, out of classes of about 266. Maryland's attorney general warns that any consideration of race among the pool of law school applicants may be successfully challenged. Given the current legal environment, other ways must be found to encourage minorities to seek higher education. A word from the president helps, but more than words may be needed.
Pub Date: 5/23/97