To Be Young, Educated, and Black: Blacks in Higher Education

Not long ago, to be a person of color with a college degree in the United States was to be an anomaly. In 1993, more blacks were on probation, in prison, or on parole than were engaged in higher education. Today, however, the tables have turned: more than 3.8 million blacks hold at least a four-year college degree, and there continue to be advancements in shrinking the education achievement gap. In Stick Fly, Lydia Diamond offers a glimpse into the lives of blacks who have attained prominence and wealth based on achievements in higher education.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2002 was a record year for college and university enrollment. The U.S. Department of Education reported that 1,950,905 blacks were enrolled in higher education programs. Of the 17 million students of all races, two million were black.

There have also been significant gains in graduate school and professional-degree enrollment and graduation rates. A report by the National Opinion Research Center at University of Chicago reveals that 1,708 blacks earned doctorates in 2003, a four percent increase over the previous year.

In 2005, black medical school students comprised 15 percent of the student body at Duke University. That same year the medical schools at Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve University reported that 10 percent of their medical students were black. Indeed, the overall graduation rate among blacks is extraordinarily high at a vast majority of the nation's leading medical schools. At seven of the 14 schools that supplied graduation rate data by race, the black graduation rate was a perfect 100 percent. At four additional high-ranking medical schools, the graduation rate was 92 percent or higher.

Historically black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs, continue to be a powerful force in higher education and black male participation in higher education. The first of these were established before the American Civil War and served as institutes for blacks to receive higher education. HBCUs offered opportunities to blacks that would not otherwise have been extended to them and that reached beyond those found on plantations or in the highly segregated labor force.

Today, HBCUs have a rich legacy and an impressive record for producing black professionals and scholars, including prominent doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social activists. Twenty-three percent of black bachelor's degree recipients and 13 percent of blacks who have master's degrees attended HBCUs. More than half the nation's black public school teachers, as well as 70 percent of the nation's black dentists and physicians, have earned degrees at a historically black college or university. Xavier University in Louisiana, for example, is the top school in the nation for placing blacks in medical schools. Spelman and Bennett colleges, also, produce more than half of the nation's black women who earn doctorates in all science fields.

Some question the validity of an HBCU in our seemingly integrated society. HBCU graduates point out that the HBCU provides a comfortable and nurturing environment in which students can succeed and foster their pride and sense of identity. Blacks can simply be students without the "underrepresented minority" designation they would otherwise receive at a predominantly white institution. Historically black institutions also pilot research bringing attention to problems that would otherwise go unnoticed, including the gender gap among blacks in education.

HBCUs also provide access for students from low-income backgrounds. Although the institutions' populations are majority black, there is economic and cultural diversity. They have healthy Caribbean and African student populations and a growing Hispanic population as well. Blacks have made profound strides in higher education in the past few years and continue to graduate from colleges and universities at high rates, gaining employment in the top paying companies, firms, colleges, and hospitals throughout the U.S. The issues Diamond explores in Stick Fly promote conversation about the education gap we see reflected in America today.

Despite the progress that blacks are making in education, the ratio of black men to women in higher education is disproportionately low. In his article "Progress of African Americans in Higher Education Attainment: The Widening Gender Gap and Its Current and Future Implications," Amadu J. Kaba examines the progress of blacks in higher education, highlighting reasons for the disparity between black men and women.

In the mid-1970s, more black women enrolled in all levels of higher education - undergraduate, graduate, and professional - than black men. By the mid-1990s, the enrollment of blacks in higher education increased on the whole but, subsequently, so did the gender gap. The percentage of female students rose to 62 percent, whereas the percentage of men decreased to 38 percent. By the end of the century, the number of men further decreased to 36 percent, while the number of women increased by another percentile. Kaba identifies several factors affecting black male progress and achievement in higher education. Black men tend to enter the military or workforce at earlier ages. High school dropout rates and even low college-graduation rates are also prevalent among black men. There is additionally a high death rate of college-aged black men and a disproportionately high number of young black men in the U.S. prison system.

- David Dower


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