According to the Century Foundation, just one-quarter of all American community colleges can be considered “racially integrated.”
For the African-American community, the achievement gap has became an inescapable reminder of the value of race in the United States. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 12.6 percent of the nation’s population was primarily of African descent, but only 4.4 percent of all attorneys in the U.S. in 2011 were Black. Just 6.7 percent of all doctors in the U.S. are Black. Five percent of all American engineers are Black, and — as of 2008 — a measly 1.8 percent of all registered architects were Black.
Among the Fortune 500, only six companies — McDonald’s, Merck, American Express, Xerox, TIAA-CREF and Darden Restaurants — had currently-serving Black chief executive officers as of March 2012, with approximately 2 percent of lower executive positions being held by African-Americans.
For millions of African-Americans, the American Dream is — if not completely unobtainable — increasingly hard to reach. Lack of access to quality jobs is leaving a growing section of the Black community destitute and without the means to properly provide for their children. A diminishing tax base leads to poorly funded schools and a continuing cycle of poverty and desperation.
“In the 20th century, going to college was not necessary for getting a job in the middle class,” said Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami Dade College. “But in today’s job market, if you don’t have a postsecondary credential, you can’t get a job that lets you achieve the American dream. It keeps you in a cycle of poverty.”
The educational gap
According to the New York Times, approximately 44 percent of the nation’s college students attend community colleges. According to a Century Foundation report, “Bridging the Higher Education Divide,” just one-fourth of all American community colleges can be considered “racially integrated” with a combined minority population average of 36.5 percent. The remaining campuses are split evenly among those that are predominantly White, those that are predominantly minority, and those that fall between the demarcations of “strongly integrated” and “strongly segregated.”
While this racial segregation is most likely the result of the community colleges reflecting the local population they serve, the situation still represent a serious problem. First, community colleges receive — in state and federal aid — the least amount of money per student among educational institutions at any level. They receive significantly less than four-year universities and colleges and less than even elementary and secondary schools.
While all public colleges in the U.S. saw cuts in public funding, four-year schools mitigated the cuts with tuition increases. Community colleges were generally unable to demand such increases. In addition, public student financial assistance — such as the Pell Grant program — is typically not available due to the reduced cost of student enrollment.
“Many community colleges end up receiving minimal federal support,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “The kids with the greatest needs receive the fewest resources.”
As community colleges increasingly rely on the actual tuition paid from its student body, schools with predominately poor students must make do with even less. A recent study of California community colleges found that the schools with the highest minority enrollment “typically receive less funding from local governments…[and] state support doesn’t cover that gap.”
“The problems of those communities resulting from neighborhood segregation and the concentration of poverty are simply transferred up the educational pipeline,” wrote Sara Goldrick-Rab and Peter Kinsley, the authors of the Century Foundation report. Segregated community colleges with large shares of needy students “not only receive fewer monetary resources, but they likely produce less student learning.”
This is creating a de facto “separate but equal” situation in higher education, in which more affluent students head toward better-funded four-year institutions while the poor head to two-year schools. The Century Foundation reports that only 12 percent of all community college students enroll in a four-year university in six years. In light of a high dropout rate for community colleges, this is creating an underclass with inadequate, if any, post-high school education. This stratification of education by class was ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
For many minorities, the work-around for this has been affirmative action.
The question of affirmative action
Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating on the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, in which Abigail Fisher, a White woman, claims that her rights under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were violated when she was denied admission into the school. Fisher, who graduated from a Texas public high school in 2008, argues that she was denied a place in the incoming class because that place was reserved for a minority student who would not have likely been admitted if the admission process was race-blind. Fisher just missed automatic admission to the University of Texas at Austin under the state’s Top 10 Percent Law. Because the University of Texas receives federal funding, the university is subject to federal law regarding admissions.
This is the first of two cases the court will hear on affirmative action. The second — Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action — challenges a federal appeals court decision to invalidate a 2006 Michigan voter initiative that barred public universities and colleges from considering race and ethnicity in admissions.
Affirmative action has been a favorite target for conservatives since it was brought into fruition by executive order by President John F. Kennedy in an effort to require government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” This was buoyed by a 1965 executive order from Lyndon B. Johnson, who ordered all federal government contractors to use affirmative action policies to increase the number of minority employees.
At that time, 5 percent of all undergraduates were Black, as were 1 percent of all law students and 2 percent of all medical students. Many colleges embraced affirmative action as a way of bolstering minority enrollment in higher education, and Supreme Court cases — such as 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger — have defended its use in educational admissions.
Those that criticize affirmative action do so on the basis that it creates a system of “reverse discrimination,” that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, that it permits less qualified students to achieve based on lower standards, and that it serves middle- and upper-class minority students rather than the poor.
However, for those who benefit from affirmative action, it provides access to a higher quality of education that would not exist otherwise. In an amici curiae brief filed by Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr. to Grutter v. Bollinger, the general argues: “Based on decades of experience, amici have concluded that a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps educated and trained to command our nation’s racially diverse enlisted ranks is essential to the military’s ability to fulfill its principal mission to provide national security…The military has made substantial progress towards its goal of a fully integrated, highly qualified officer corps. It cannot maintain the diversity it has achieved or make further progress unless it retains its ability to recruit and educate a diverse officer corps…The fact remains: Today, there is no race-neutral alternative that will fulfill the military’s, and thus the nation’s, compelling interest in national security.”
A second amici curiae brief filed on behalf of more than 60 Fortune 500 companies — including 3M, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Microsoft, Nike and Pepsi — argued that, “The students of today are this country’s corporate and community leaders of the next half-century. For these students to realize their potential as leaders, it is essential that they be educated in an environment where they are exposed to diverse people, ideas, perspectives and interactions. In the experience of the amici businesses, today’s global marketplace and the increasing diversity in the American population demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding gained from such an education.”
Affirmative action is — in essence — a makeshift solution which is inadequate to the demands imposed on it. However, in light of no better solutions, it is, as of now, the only opportunity many minorities have to achieve the American dream.