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A new network of academics, college presidents, bipartisan policy makers and business leaders released a report Wednesday calling attention to a decade-long decline in college enrollment among Black students and its ripple effects on the country. The report details strategies to support these students, and the group also signed on to a national call to action to philanthropists, state and federal lawmakers, campus leaders, and others in which they committed to taking specific steps toward addressing the issue.

The 26-member coalition, called the Level UP National Panel, was assembled in response to some alarming data about the dropping rates of Black enrollment. The education consulting firm HCM Strategists teamed up with EducationCounsel consultants and Achieving the Dream, an organization dedicated to community college student success, to create the group after HCM Strategists launched a research project to study Black enrollment trends as the number of Black college students plummeted during the pandemic. Researchers found that the decreases long preceded the virus.

“Black enrollment peaked in 2011 and has been precipitously declining since that point,” said Martha Snyder, managing director of HCM Strategists. “This was an issue getting attention in the context of the pandemic, but not in the context of the systemic realities that face our postsecondary systems.”

Colleges and universities lost roughly 600,000 Black students over the course of a decade, with about half of those losses at community colleges, the report notes. Black enrollment at community colleges fell 26 percent between 2011 and 2019, and the number of Black students enrolled at community colleges in 2020 was the same as two decades earlier.

Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton College in California and chair of the network, said it’s important that different kinds of leaders “take shared ownership” for these troubling trends.

“It’s our responsibility,” he said. It’s important to “not put the blame back on learners because the systems have been broken.”

The call to action notes that if every Black adult in the workforce with a high school education earned as much as the average Black college graduate, they would collectively have an estimated $222 billion more in lifetime earnings. It stresses that those missing dollars, an amount larger than the economies of 19 individual states, would improve the financial trajectories of Black learners, their families and communities and also would mean more disposable income reinvested in the U.S. economy.

Margaret Spellings, formerly the U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush and a member of the network, said those lost earnings are a loss to Black Americans as well as the country.

“The truth is we’ve been going the wrong direction for a very long time, and that’s bad for individuals, obviously in terms of lifetime earnings … and bad for our economy, bad for our nation, bad for democracy,” said Spellings, now president and CEO of Texas 2036, a public policy think tank.

Zakiya Smith Ellis, principal at EducationCounsel, noted that the campaign shows “from all different angles, across political parties, there’s a shared interest in the success of Black learners,” and she said she hopes others will commit to the recommendations the group has put forward.

“We need the entire field,” she said. The group embraced the term “Level UP” because it means “step up your game. Improve what you’re doing. What we’re doing is not enough.”

She added that, as the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates the future of race-conscious admissions practices, it’s all the more important to consider new ways to enroll and retain Black students.

“How do we think more creatively about what we can do to systemically support students?” she said. “There’s any number of things we list … that could be helpful and that we kind of need to double down on given there may be other tools that were previously at our disposal that may no longer be there.”

Solving an Economic and Moral Crisis

The report highlights a number of obstacles to Black enrollment, including college costs and a lack of transparency about them. It notes that 80 percent of Black Americans view college as unaffordable.

Meanwhile, a third of Black graduates with bachelor’s degrees held over $40,000 in debt in 2015–16 compared to 18 percent of white graduates and 13 percent of Hispanic graduates. The report recommends colleges make total college costs as clear to students as possible and make sure tuition expenses are based on “a true assessment of what students have the ability to pay and what is morally acceptable to charge so that they do not incur insurmountable debt.”

High levels of debt for Black students are “an indictment of the educational system that’s not delivering the kind of value that it needs to for Black learners,” Smith Ellis said. “And they see that. That impacts their willingness to participate in that system if they feel like the system isn’t working for them.”

As students and parents increasingly question the return on investment of a college degree, the report also advises college and business leaders to partner to ensure academic programs equip students with the skills they need for well-paying jobs. It stresses that Black students and their peers also need clear information about how what they’re learning connects to future job opportunities.

Ensuring the returns of higher education are equal for everyone is also critical, said Brian Kennedy, senior analyst of workforce policy at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on advancing Black communities.

“Even though there certainly is a wage premium to gaining degrees, racial gaps are still pretty pervasive,” he said. “It’s worth asking the question ‘is this investment worth it?’ because oftentimes they’re not being rewarded at a rate similar to their counterparts.”

In general, “our postsecondary education systems, our workforce training systems, are designed by policy, and just like any other policy, they are ripe and have vestiges of racism and sexism, and so we have to actively work to make these systems better and make sure they’re more accessible and make sure they’re delivering the same results for folks no matter who they are,” he added.

The report also emphasizes the importance of academic and social supports on campus for Black students, given that these students are more likely to be juggling other responsibilities, such as working for pay or caring for family members.

According to the report, 22 percent of Black students have caregiving responsibilities for children or adult family members, compared to 11 percent of their non-Black peers. Similarly, 20 percent of Black students work full-time compared to 11 percent of other students. Meanwhile, 21 percent of Black students feel discriminated against “occasionally” or “frequently” in college, compared to 15 percent of other students.

The report suggests colleges build partnerships with local community organizations and seek their advice on how to better serve Black learners, offer flexible course schedules suited for students with work and caregiving responsibilities, and train faculty members in culturally responsive pedagogy, among other recommendations.

The report also puts some of the onus on federal and state lawmakers to better fund institutions that disproportionately serve Black students, including community colleges and historically Black institutions. It also points to a lack of data disaggregated by race at the federal, state and institutional level that could help researchers better assess the needs of Black students. For example, it notes that the U.S. Department of Education collects loan and income data that’s not broken down by race and ethnicity, and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid also doesn’t require race or ethnicity data.

Such specific information is necessary for “equipping leaders with the data needed for shared ownership of Black learner success,” the report notes.

Curry said the network’s next steps are hosting a regional convening in Atlanta, followed by a national meeting in September focused on the needs of Black students. The group also plans to create an Alliance for Black Learner Excellence, a cohort of campus leaders.

He noted that even though the pandemic didn’t cause Black enrollment declines, it has motivated campus leaders and policy makers to think more deeply about how to serve students. He believes this post-pandemic moment can encourage a sharper focus on the needs of Black students and a growing movement on their behalf, starting with this network.

Curry wants college leaders to keep the enrollment declines top of mind as they make budget and policy decisions.

“Keep in mind the lack of completion of Black learners. Keep in mind where our Black learners are getting jobs after they complete a degree or certificate and how much are they making as it relates to livable wages. Right now is the time to have those conversations—and if we don’t, who else will?”

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