Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Closing the college
graduation disparity


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | 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 "race-neutral" alternatives.

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 spend.

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 students.

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 or university.

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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