Over the past decade or so, the number of African Americans pursuing higher education has hit new heights, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education.
From 1993 to 2003, Black enrollment at the nation's colleges and universities surged nearly 43 percent — to more than 1.9 million students. Students of color made up 27.8 percent of nearly 17 million students on campuses across the country, up from 21.8 percent in 1993. And, according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Blacks in 2004 earned an all-time high of 131,241 bachelor's degrees from four-year American colleges and universities; up 6 percent from 2003 and more than twice that of 1990.
But don't go cracking open the champagne just yet. According to the American Council study, African Americans are the most likely to drop out of college than any other minority group.
Obviously, somewhere along the line there has been a major disconnect.
In September, a U.S. Education Department advisory committee on student financial aid concluded that as many as 1.6 million degrees were lost in the 1990s among low and low-middle income students who decided not to go to college because of costs and other factors.
With a median income of $30,858 and net worth of roughly $6,000, African American households are at a substantial disadvantage in affording college compared to Whites, whose median income is at least $20,000 or more a year and whose net worth is 10 times that of Blacks.
Back in March, Harvard University announced that it would no longer expect households with less than $60,000 a year in annual income to contribute to their children's education. It represented a major expansion of its 2004 financial aid initiative that set the cutoff at $40,000 per household and brought about a 24 percent hike in enrollment of students from low-income families.
Harvard's decision in 2004 to raise the financial-aid stakes served as the catalyst in a chain reaction among its competitors.
"We will accomplish nothing significant in improving access for students from low- and middle-income families unless we focus our attention on strengthening our need-based financial aid program," wrote University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman in a Washington Post commentary from early October.
"Financial aid based on need is the great equalizer of opportunity in higher education. Nothing promotes equity and socioeconomic diversity more effectively."
Our democracy cannot expect to continue down the same track and remain a superpower if our most talented children are denied access to the highest-quality education. Some responsibility lies on our state and federal governments.
The powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere continue to cut back Pell Grant funding and downsize federal and state financial aid programs. According to the Project on Student Debt, a majority of African Americans agree: 64 percent said the federal government was doing too little to make higher education more affordable and accessible.
Marc H. Morial is the President and CEO of the National Urban League.