By AUDREY L. BARNEY
Capital News Service
LANSING — Selena Kountz of Center Line credits her high school education as an important part of her making it through college.
Kountz, 23, is a graduating senior at Michigan State University. Although she doesn’t come from an affluent background, she said she was able to enjoy the benefits of living in an affluent community.
“I wasn’t in a financially established household, but we live in the suburbs so I was able to get a good quality education,” Kountz said. “I was able to experience the advantages of living in a city with resources.”
Attending MSU was a new experience for Kountz, who says she has been saddened during her years at MSU by the low retention rate of students of color.
“My friends and I can literally count on one hand the number of friends or people we know that are still here or have graduated,” Kountz said. “Many students left because of financial problems, social problems or personal issues.”
Tiffany Eldridge, a sophomore at MSU is a first generation African-American college student. She said the biggest struggle with attending college is believing that she belongs.
“In my freshman year, I was always thinking that I was only at MSU to meet a quota,” Eldridge said. “I felt that the administration and white students didn’t want me here.”
She is not alone in her experience, which — along with many other reasons — has deterred many minority students from attending college.
The Business-Higher Education Forum released a report in January that contends that without the required investments in improving education for all Americans, tomorrow’s minority workers will not be ready to meet the challenges of a knowledge-intensive economy.
“Diversity is an invaluable competitive asset that America can not afford to ignore,” said Stephen G. Butler, co-chair of the forum’s diversity initiative.
According to the report, a large portion of new jobs — especially jobs with competitive salaries and benefits — will demand skills and knowledge far beyond those of a high school graduate.
“Some people just don’t want to attend college, they think it’s too hard or too many obstacles to get there,” Eldridge said. “They’d rather settle for a job at General Motors — it’s like having a Ph.D. to them.” By 2028, there will be 19 million more jobs than workers who are adequately prepared to fill them.
Roughly 40 percent of the people available to take these jobs will be members of minority groups, the report states.
“Children who do not succeed in elementary and secondary education cannot go on to college,” said William E. Kirwan, president of Ohio State University and co-chair of the diversity initiative. “Without a college degree, an individual will not be prepared to the majority of the jobs that will be available in the future.America’s educational system is the pipeline from which the diverse pool of capable citizens and workers for the 21st century will flow.”
Nikki O’Brien, coordinator of African American student affairs at MSU, says that while the university has not done all that it can do to improve minority retention, some programs are in place.
“Our office has the MAGIC program, which informs minority students of the resources available to them,” O’Brien said.
“The best part of the program is that we try to give students a realistic idea of what a minority student faces at a predominantly white university.”
Experts have predicted that the traditional college-age population will grow by 16 percent between 2000 and 2015, and of these students, 80 percent will be non-white and nearly half will be Hispanic.
The BHEF report cited 28 percent of white students completed a bachelor’s degree in 2000, compared with fewer than 17 percent of African-Americans and 11 percent of Hispanics. The Asian student group was cited as being the only group that graduates at a ratio proportionate to its population.
Jason Kwah, the Asian Pacific American coordinator at the University of Michigan, said the numbers for APA students are accurate but they don’t reflect the internal issues the “whole” student deals with at the university.
“We have students from different cultures that are pressured not to attend college, and when they do it’s like they are rebelling against their family,” Kwah said. “These sort of issues affect the student’s overall performance and well-being.”
Kwah said family problems and cultural differences provide barriers that sometimes prevent students of color from enduring higher education and receiving a degree.
For others, not being academically prepared for college has put them at a disadvantage.
“The quality of high school curriculum and the level of the mathematics curriculum are indicators of if a student will graduate from college,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.
The council represents the 15 universities in Michigan.
“Diversity is achieved when we level the playing field on the K-12 level of education quality,” said Stevens, who believes that finances should not be the biggest barrier stopping students from attending college.
“One shouldn’t argue that finances are the reason that students don’t attend school, financial aid exists to help make college accessible and affordable.”
The BHEF suggests that universities and major corporations make an investment in improving the quality of education for minority students so that the nation can benefit in the future.
Some of their suggestions include:
– Support and strengthen existing outreach programs that focus on the value of attending college, ways to prepare students and assist them in applying for and attending college, and the importance of lifelong learning. · Provide the resources to ensure that teachers are prepared to work effectively with racially and ethnically diverse students.
-Review current strategies and policies designed to foster diversity and tolerance, and ensure that they are meeting their goals. Publicize the results of these reviews in the higher education and business communities.
– Speak out and advocate that colleges and universities take the whole person into account when making admissions decisions; that is, consider all relevant qualities Ñ not just grades and test scores Ñ in assessing each applicant.
– Encourage corporate foundations to provide support for diversity initiatives, and to share the programs and their results with professional peers.
In addition, the forum urges national policy makers to increase the amount of the Federal Pell Grant to its congressionally authorized annual maximum of $5,800 per student. (The 2000-01 maximum Pell Grant per student is $3,750.)
“This report sounds an alarm to educators, business leaders, policy makers and the general public and calls for us to recognize the importance of diversity to our country’s well-being,” said American Council on Education (ACE) President David Ward. “To ignore it could be detrimental to our nation’s economic and social future.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By AUDREY L. BARNEY