Closing One Gap for African Americans

Southern colleges enroll higher proportion of black students than are in the region's population, report finds. But other problems exist.
June 26, 2007

African Americans now make up a greater proportion of Southern college students than they do of that region's population at large, according to a new report. But while closing that persistent gap is certainly significant, the report highlights others that still remain.

The finding, from the Southern Regional Education Board's latest Fact Book on Higher Education, released on Monday, covers an area of the country, traditionally defined as the South, that stretches from Texas to as far north as Delaware. No other region's African American college enrollment matches or exceeds its African American population.

And while the report welcomed the development that, for the first time, 21 percent of college students in those 16 states are African American (compared with 19 percent of the region's population), it warned that major gaps persist between whites and other ethnic groups in graduation rates and in students' ability to pay for college.

"Demographic changes and years of progress and effort in trying to emphasize student preparation [have made] students aware of the importance of college opportunities," said the report's author, Joseph L. Marks. "It's not all a rosy picture, though."

The fact book also sheds some light on where the growth in enrollments occurred -- and where it didn't. From 1995 to 2005, the proportion of black students in the region who were enrolled in two-year colleges grew to 42.1 percent from 38.6 percent, suggesting that a disproportionate number of new African American students are taking the community-college route.

But during the same period, the percentage of black students in the region who were enrolled at public or private historically black colleges and universities declined to 19 percent from 26 percent. (There was also a decline at "predominantly black" universities -- those with more than 50 percent black enrollment -- to 30 percent from 32 percent.)

While no hard numbers are available because the report did not distinguish between types of institutions, the fast-growing for-profit sector -- which enrolls disproportionate numbers of minority students -- also probably represented a significant part of the growth. The University of Phoenix, for example, has a nationwide African-American enrollment of about 23 percent (compared to about 13 to 14 percent nationally).

Marks said that further details on which kinds of institutions saw the most growth in black enrollment were not available, but a breakdown by state shows that the most growth -- both for total enrollment and that of African Americans -- occurred in Arkansas over the 10-year period observed. Other states with high levels of growth in black enrollments were Florida (76 percent), Georgia (63 percent), Texas (59 percent) and North Carolina (56 percent), all above the 52-percent average increase in the Southern region, and well above the national average of 42 percent.

The types of enrollment also vary. Black students make up 21 percent of undergraduate students but 18 percent of graduate and 11 percent of first-professional students -- all increases over the past 10 years.

In all, from 1995 to 2005, 1.2 million more students enrolled at Southern colleges and universities, with African American and Hispanic students making up about 48 percent of that growth. While black enrollment in the South hit a milestone, Hispanic enrollment, despite being much lower proportionally, grew at an even faster pace: 71 percent, higher than the national rate of 60 percent for Hispanics. White enrollment, by contrast, increased by 8 percent in the South and 4 percent nationally.

The different growth rates mask significant variations in the absolute numbers of students enrolled in college. Currently, 25 percent of college-age Hispanics are enrolled, compared to 33 percent of African Americans and 43 percent of whites.

Some See Growth, Some Don't

It would appear that a disproportionate amount of the growth in minority enrollments in the past 10 years was seen at two-year colleges and non-flagship public universities. But the study doesn't provide conclusive evidence for all campuses.

In Georgia, for example, one of the high-growth states in the South, the flagship University of Georgia actually saw a decline in black enrollment from 1995 to 2004 both as a percentage of the student body and in absolute numbers. While 27.1 percent of the state's undergraduate enrollment was black in 1995, only 6.8 percent -- or 2,041 -- of the campus's students were black. That number had declined even further, to 1,854 students, or 5.6 percent, in 2004.

At Georgia State University in Atlanta, meanwhile, African American enrollment increased significantly in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of the student body -- to 28 percent from 22.8 percent -- at a time when its admissions standards were being improved and the overall student population was growing in size.

And at Georgia Perimeter College, a two-year institution outside Atlanta, black enrollment increased by an even greater percentage over that period. In all, Georgia's two-year colleges and state colleges saw much greater increases in black enrollment than the regional and main university campuses.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, another non-flagship state school saw no significant growth in black enrollment at all. "We really haven't been seeing evidence of that trend at UNC-Charlotte," said Tina McEntire, the campus's director of undergraduate admissions.

That, she said, probably reflected the state's tremendous growth in Hispanic population, which might not deflate the number of black students enrolled but would lower their percentage. That trend, combined with the overall low rate of Hispanic college enrollment, also partially explains why African Americans are better represented in college than in the general Southern population.

But while the gaps in college enrollment have closed, or are at least narrowing, the report warns of problems to come. While the black and Hispanic populations are growing rapidly in the South (at rates of 22 and 76 percent, respectively, from 1996-2006), those are the groups with the lowest levels of college attainment.

"The racial/ethnic groups projected to be the fastest growing in the next decade and beyond have the lowest education attainment -- yielding a disturbing forecast for the region's future," the fact book states.

In short: While enrollment numbers are improving, getting students out the other end should become the next priority.

The other major problem cited by Marks is the increasing price of a higher education, including public universities, and the disproportionate effect that could have on the greater numbers of minority students attending college.

"We're looking at a future where the fastest-growing student groups are going to be those for whom going to college is least affordable," he said.

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