LET’S DO BETTER by Brenda Robinson
College football season has opened and football fans are geeked. Excitement is in the air. There is something magical about Saturday afternoon football. Whether the crowd’s loudest roar comes from the precision stepping of a Big Ten Marching Band or the acrobatic, soulful, stepping of a drum major from an Historical Black College/University (HBCU), America loves Saturday on the gridiron.
Some of our football enthusiasm, however, must be transferred to academic accessibility. After all, the greater majority of Americans will never make a living playing football. Out of necessity, our focus has to include the poor students in America who cannot attend college simply because they are poor. America’s colleges and universities have not been very friendly toward students whose parents are low income and they are becoming disenfranchised from higher education.
Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced he will institute a college rating system that will require colleges and universities to meet certain criteria for assurance of receiving maximum federal dollars. The president stated he can establish some policies without passage by Congress while acknowledging some will require congressional approval.
President Obama spoke of evaluating schools on their educational innovation, their providing access to disadvantaged students, affordability, average student loan debt, graduation rates, and academic outcomes and graduates’ job earnings. There could be a bonus for colleges whose Pell Grant recipient graduation rates increase.
At first glance, the president’s proposal appears favorable for poor students, but upon scrutiny this plan could further disenfranchise these potentially college bound students.
Unfortunately, most politicians view the term “poor” as derogatory. The Tea Party movement and conservative backlash frightened these politicians into believing any reference to helping “poor” people meant “giving lazy people undeserved handouts.” Thus, some politicians, including the president, found it politically advantageous to include “moderate and middle class” into the mix with “low income.” For safety reasons, that is what the president has done with his new college initiative.
Income ranges between those families in poverty and middle class are difficult to measure, although we know middle income is higher than low income. There are some definitive measures, however. We know heads of low income families are disproportionately non-white. Low income families are more likely to have health problems and a child in poor health. Low income families are less educated, live in more stressful home environments, more likely to be unemployed and underemployed, and rent instead of owning their own homes. Low income families’ children are more likely to struggle with academics, less likely to engage in school activities, and have higher levels of emotional and behavior problems. Consequently, we petition the president to refrain from setting up the same rules for both poor students and middle class students.
Now let’s get real. Poor students are more likely to enter college academically disadvantaged and more likely to enter less “prestigious” and smaller universities. This would, of course, include HBCUs. These “poor” (blacks, Hispanics, other ethnicities and whites) students are less likely to graduate than their middle and upper income counterparts. The prestigious Harvard University graduates 95 percent of its black students. Princeton graduates 93 percent. Stanford, Yale, and Dartmouth graduate upward of 85 percent. The students who enter these aforementioned universities are academically ahead of most students upon arrival. And, also they are more likely to come from economically and socially apt households. Should HBCUs and other universities, who have majority populations of blacks and poor students, “compete” with Harvard and Princeton for federal dollars? Although, HBCUs, overall, graduate a higher percentage of black students than majority universities (i.e. Spelman 79 percent, Howard, 64 percent, Morehouse 61 percent), these schools are no match for Ivy League and other prestigious majority schools who graduate upward of 85 percent.
The president spoke of giving more aid to universities that graduated students with less student loan debt. Poor students have more debt. That is an expectation when their parents earn less! And, these students, again, are more likely to attend the smaller universities.
Schools showing more educational innovation would receive more federal dollars as would schools whose graduates obtain more higher paying jobs, following graduation. The larger, prestigious schools are privy to wealthy alumni who donate billions of dollars to their respective alma maters for the latest technological advancements. Of course, Ivy League and other prestigious institutions would graduate more medical, scientific, and corporate types, predestined to become wealthy and join that 10 percent of exceptional high earners
In 2012, four member families whose incomes were less that $23,000, were considered in poverty. Thus, 28 percent of blacks, 27 percent of Hispanics, 12 percent of Asians, and nine percent of Caucasians lived in poverty. There are a lot of students in those percentages who will enroll in colleges that prioritize giving unprepared students chances to earn post high school degrees. Because of these institutions focus on poor students, they could miss out on federal dollars.
Thus, we petition the president and his educational advisers to take another look at these proposed new funding policies. Go into the “old school” archives, pull out some of the “War on Poverty” language. The conclusion just may be, colleges that admit the most poor students deserve the most federal dollars. Don’t be “scared,” Mr. President, enough liberals “got your back.”
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18 print edition.