Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar 5763
Closing the college
Regardless of how the U.S. Supreme
Court rules on its high-profile case on affirmative action
involving college admissions, Education Secretary Rod
Paige says the Bush administration will pursue
That's fine with me. Although, I think true race-neutral
solutions to helping disadvantaged students earn a
college degree will cost more money than this
administration or Congress has shown a willingness to
I always have found it curious that of all the education
programs we Americans could argue about, we seem to
spend more time, energy and money arguing about
affirmative action, a program that helps the fewest
Despite the doomsday scenarios painted by some
affirmative-action proponents, fewer than a fourth of the
nation's colleges and universities are selective enough to consider race, among other
factors, in their process of choosing which lucky applicants will be admitted. And
despite the complaints of some affirmative-action opponents, these are well-qualified
minority students. They are so well qualified, in fact, that were they to be rejected from
elite academies they would most likely be quickly snapped by some other fine college
But while the nation has flapped its jaws about affirmative action in college
admissions for the past three decades, what about college graduation rates? There
the gap between blacks and whites actually has grown wider.
Today, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, a black high school
graduate is about one-fourth less likely to attend a four-year college than a white high
school graduate--and only 50 percent as likely to graduate!
In short, black and white youths appear to have gotten the message that a college
degree is very important. But a higher percentage of black students are dropping out,
most often in their freshman or sophomore year, according to a recent analysis of
Education Department figures by Douglas J. Besharov and Christopher Brown at the
American Enterprise Institute.
And broken down along gender lines, it looks worse, particularly for black males.
Some 44 percent of black males entering college, compared to 29 percent of black
females, fail to achieve a four-year degree by age 30, compared to 23 percent for white
males and 19 percent for white females.
In short, more young people of all races aspire to get some education beyond high
school, but more also are failing to achieve that goal.
Why? The biggest reason appears to be money.
A 1995 study (the most recent) by the U.S. General Accounting Office, for example,
concluded after visiting colleges and collecting data nationwide that a mere $1,000
increase in the average Pell Grant, which pays college tuition costs for about 4 million
of the nation's neediest students, would result in a 23 percent higher retention rate for
those students between their freshman and sophomore years and a 15 percent
retention increase for those between their junior and senior years.
But instead of going up or staying the same, Pell Grants have declined as a
percentage of average college tuitions, fees and room-and-board costs, which have
all increased. While the cost of the average public four-year college or university has
grown to $9,135 in 2002 from $5,574 in 1975, for example, Pell Grants have shrunk to
covering only 44 percent of the cost from 84 percent.
President Bush's proposed 2004 budget calls for a Pell Grant increase, but only to
make up for part of the shortfall. And just to show that shortchanging low-income
college students has become a bipartisan deal these days, President Bill Clinton's 25
percent increase in 1997 also failed to keep up with rising college costs. According to
his political adviser Dick Morris' 1999 memoir, Clinton chose to push a tuition tax
credit instead, which Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin ridiculed as "opening the
Treasury door to pass out goodies before the election."
Goodies to the middle class, it must be said. Today's political landscape struggles
mightily for middle-class swing voters, while earnest, aspiring low-income youths of
all colors find a college degree to be becoming economically elusive.
One might think that a country willing to offer $25 billion to Turkey and billions more to
the new Iraq and Afghanistan might find a few billion here and there to help more of its
own aspiring, but poor, young citizens earn a college degree.
But, alas, that would cost money. It's easier to argue endlessly about hot-button
issues like affirmative action, even though its impact is remarkably modest.
At least it's cheap. When we pinch pennies in helping our fellow Americans achieve
the American dream, we get what we pay for.
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