Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Surging Degree Wave

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Surging Degree Wave

Article excerpt

As the number of White students receiving college degrees has stayed steady for the last five years, the number of African American, Hispanic. Asian. and Native American degree recipients has soared.

"It's real progress," says Dr. Michael Nettles, director of the Frederick D. Patterson Institute, the research and of The College Fund/UNCF. "It's phenomenal."

According to an analysis by Black Issues In Higher Education of the latest Department of Education data (see chart, page 23), the number of African Americans receiving associate degrees is increasing at a rate of 5.8 percent a year, while the number receiving bachelor's degrees is increasing at a rate of 5.6 percent a year, yielding a five-year growth rate of roughly 24 percent.

"It's good news. It's a good story," says Deborah Carter, director of the American Council on Education's (ACE) Office of Minority Al fairs. "We are seeing the benefits of the outreach and diversity efforts that colleges and universities have been making."

The increasing success of Blacks in higher education offers an optimistic contrast to other social trends -- such as the rising incarceration rate of African Americans over the last five years -- that have caused enormous concern among policy makers nationwide. Unlike the incarceration data, however, the increase in degree attainment has hardly been noticed:

"All we know is that on the higher education front, more African Americans are making the right choice -- and that is to pursue as much education as is available," Nettles says. "People are understanding the opportunities and the relationship of higher education to upward mobility."

The Fruits of the Labor

This year's Top 100 data reveal that African Americans aren't the only people of color achieving noteworthy progress in higher education.

The number of Latinos receiving degrees increased 7.8 percent a year for associate degrees and 8.6 percent for baccalaureates.

Even Native Americans, who have traditionally have had very low rates of participation in higher education, have increased the number of associate and baccalaureate degrees earned -- by 7.3 and 7.2 percent respectively.

Asian Americans have increased the number of degrees earned by somewhat higher percentages than other students of color. Associate degrees earned increased by a rate of 9.8 percent per year, and baccalaureate degrees increased by 7.4 percent. The increase in college going among Asian Americans has been widely documented, whereas that of other students of color has been widely overlooked.

By contrast, the number of Whites receiving associate degrees has increased by only 0.7 percent annually, and the number receiving baccalaureate degrees has actually declined by about 1.2 percent a year.

Demographers who were consulted for this article attribute the stagnation of White degree attainment to the "baby bust," in which the actual number of White people of traditional college age declined, after the bulge of the "baby boom." They expect those numbers to increase again when the children of baby boomers -- affectionately dubbed the "baby boom echo" -- reach college age in about five years. But the larger numbers of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans are seen as a function of larger percentages of students of color going into higher education and completing their degrees.

"This follows the trends we've been seeing for a couple of years," ACE's Carter says. "We saw enrollment gains in the 1980s and 1990s. What we're seeing now are the fruits of that labor."

Nettles agrees: "The increase in Black participation [in higher education] is not happening automatically. There are people out there championing this movement."

Among initiatives cited by Nettles as examples of outreach were The College Fund/UNCF's program that encourages students to go into the disciplines of math and science, Upward Bound and other TRIO programs that encourage high school students to go to college, and the Mellon Minority Fellows Program, which has put $22 million into helping African American and Latino students to pursue advanced degrees in the sciences. …

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