Higher learning

African Americans are enrolling in college at the highest numbers in the nation’s history. And many of those students are going on to graduate. According to figures released by the U.S. Department of Education, blacks were awarded 123,464 bachelor’s degrees in 2004. The following year that number increased almost 4% to 127,844.

That’s promising news given that blacks with degrees tend to fare better economically. A report by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education states that blacks who complete a four-year college education have a median income that is now near parity with similarly educated whites.

But despite the upswing in the number of African American graduates, Dr. Claude A. Mayberry Jr. cautions against accepting the latest figures as an indicator of any significant change. “The colleges may have had a couple of good years of financial aid or recruiting,” says Mayberry, a board member of The National Council on Educating Black Children, Columbia University Teachers College, and Reading Is Fundamental. “The opportunity to go to college has increased, but when we say opportunity, we leave off an important term, which is access. Students can get into college but they often go in with a deficit in the quality of their education. Many are not qualified to tackle the curriculum.”

Indeed, the report points out that as of 2006, the graduation rate for blacks at NCAA Division I schools remains at 43% — 20 percentage points below the rate for white students. Black men fare even worse: their graduation rate now stands at 36%.

To sustain a viable increase in the college graduation rate of African Americans, Mayberry stresses that a shift has to occur in the public’s attitude toward grade school education. “In this country, education is a premium. The public will is not there to make quality education happen; the floor is not level,” Mayberry says. “If you give every kid access to quality education, those kids will go on to college and be successful.”