Building better students

May 10, 1999|By Howard P. Rawlings and Robert A. Kronley

MARYLAND has made more progress than virtually any other Southern state in expanding opportunities in higher education for African-American students. State leaders are committed to developing a comprehensive plan that provides opportunities and ensures academic excellence for all students.

Maryland's emphasis on accountability in our schools has resulted in more students from all backgrounds getting the quality education they need for success in college and the workplace. And the state's scholarship programs have created a pathway to higher education for more of our young people.

But Maryland still has far to go to rid itself of the legacy of a discriminatory past. By almost every measure, black student achievement lags behind that of their white peers. Black students are more likely than whites to drop out of high school and less likely to enroll in higher education.

College choices

Where black students go to college also causes concern. Some 57 percent of black college freshmen in Maryland public colleges are enrolled in community colleges. Very few of these students (19 percent) will graduate or go on to four-year colleges. White students are twice as likely to do so.

Particularly disturbing is the gap in graduation rates at four-year institutions. Some 65 percent of white students complete college in six years at the state's public schools; 40 percent of black students do.

This gap is persistent at every step of the education system and it grows -- from kindergarten through graduate school. In fact, if 100 white students and 100 black students entered high school in Maryland today, 24 of those white students would earn bachelor's degrees while only 12 of the black students would.

Part of the problem is financial. The average family income of blacks in Maryland is about two-thirds that of whites. This income disparity is a legacy of discrimination and is often a major barrier to black students going to college.

In part, this disparity is offset by financial aid. Black students are far more likely to receive Pell grants than white students. Yet these federal grants paid for a lot more 20 years ago than they do today.

In the mid-1970s, Pell grants covered about 80 percent of college costs at public institutions; today, they cover about 40 percent.

To close this achievement gap, a coalition of state leaders in government and education has proposed a set of coherent, educationally sound strategies. This plan -- released recently in a report titled "Miles to Go: Maryland" -- recognizes that all Maryland's students depend on quality teaching at every stage of learning.

To ensure that every student has access to qualified, well-trained and dedicated teachers from preschool through graduate school, the coalition supports raising the state's qualifying score for certification on the National Teacher Exam and limiting the number of teachers who are not fully certified.

We also need to fully fund state grant and scholarship programs for needy students, eliminate the red tape to ease the flow of money to them and redesign award criteria to ensure that students who truly need financial aid receive it.

To make sure that all of Maryland's students are well-prepared to succeed in college, the coalition calls for a new focus on reading, mathematics and science in public schools. It also urges that all of Maryland's high school students complete a rigorous college preparation program to graduate.

We all have a stake in ensuring that our citizens have access to and success in college. Over the next five years, 60 percent of all new jobs in Maryland will require a college degree. A college education is the new union card in the knowledge-based economy.

Maryland has come a long way in improving access to higher education for black students, but we must now take an activist role to ensure that every child in Maryland is well-served by Maryland's institutions.

Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Robert A. Kronley is senior consultant to the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, which co-authored and supported the study, "Miles to Go: Maryland."

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