Disenfranchisement of Blacks from higher education

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by Jack Daniel

For several dec­ades, African-American alumni of the University of Pittsburgh partnered with the University to enhance the institution’s diversity mission. Just recently, 40 years of progress were celebrated. Now, in Pittsburgh and across America, not only diversity initiatives but higher education itself is under fiscal duress as evidenced by the Pennsylvania Governor’s proposal to radically reduce the University’s state appropriation.

Jack-Daniel

In his Feb. 29, 2012 statement before the Pennsylvania Senate Appropriations Committee, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg commented on the proposed cuts as follows:

•It would take our cumulative two-year cuts in state support to well over $100 million;

•It would reduce our state support, in absolute dollars, to levels that we have not seen since the mid-1980’s, more than a quarter century ago and when the state’s own budget was about one-third of its current size; and

•It would reduce our state support, if adjusted for inflation, to the lowest level since Pitt became a state-related university.

Nordenberg also asserted, “In terms of proportionality, perhaps nothing is more telling than the proposed general fund budget’s bottom line. Overall state funding would be reduced by less than one-tenth of 1 percent or $22,456 million. The cuts proposed just for Pitt are more than double that amount…”

Herein, I add my opinion that the proposed cuts are exponentially devastating for African-Americans, particularly if one forced option for Pitt is to significantly increase tuition. Given that [1] undergraduate Pitt tuition is above $15,000 annually for in-state students; [2] nationally, the top 10 most expensive colleges average nearly $44,000; and [3] the top 10 most expensive public colleges’ out-of-state tuitions range between approximately $34,000 and $37,000, we are witnessing the economic disenfranchisement of not only the poor but also middle-class as well as most African-Americans and many other racial minorities in particular! Lest there be doubt, consider the following facts.

In July 2011, the Pew Foundation reported that the median wealth of White households was 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanics. The very next month, we learned that African-American unemployment had jumped to 16.7 percent, its highest level since 1984, while the unemployment rate for Whites fell slightly to 8 percent, thereby making good on the often stated observation that “recession” for Whites equals “depression” for African-Americans!

Thus, for many African-Americans, the pursuit of higher education is likely to entail accepting huge loans that would take a very significant part of their lives to repay, loans so great that the recipients would eventually join the growing ranks of those filing for bankruptcy after leaving college.

Still worse, the adverse fiscal attack on higher education combines with other forces to truly represent an all-out, multi-pronged attack on the future of African-Americans in higher education. Just recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case from Texas where a white student filed a racial discrimination complaint. This case could be the legal tsunami whose outcome might be that an ultra-conservative leaning Court will undermine the legitimate uses of race in making admissions decisions. Even if it does not do so, simply agreeing to hear the case further chills the climate for the pursuit of diversity in higher education. Already, “race-based” scholarships are prohibited and potential donors struggle to find ways to assist disadvantaged students of color under the umbrella of “diversity.”

Therefore, now is the time for Pitt’s African-American alumni, the African-American Pittsburgh and larger Pennsylvania communities, African-Americans across the nation, and others of good will to “gird up their loins” for the battles that are likely to ensue in “high places.” Our voices need to be heard not only at the moment in Harrisburg, but also in all venues where the assault on equal opportunity is taking place. For example, witness the efforts to disenfranchise people of color from voting just in time for the upcoming Presidential election. Perhaps the current re-enactment of the 1965 Selma-Montgomery March to emphasize voters’ rights, workers’ rights, and public education is instructive regarding what must be done to help stem the tide of fiscal assaults on higher education. Maybe a timely March on Harrisburg would contribute to preventing ill-advised Commonwealth budget decisions that could force Pitt down the road to becoming a private institution, a move that could have tremendous adverse impact on educational opportunities for all Pennsylvania students.

Make no mistake about it; there are those who intend to “take back America.” Part of that process is to take back the prestigious public institutions of higher education to which African-Americans fought so hard to gain access. What better way to block their further pursuit of the American dream than to implement a modern, fiscal rationale for standing in the doors of higher education? What better way to “correct those liberal-leaning” institutions that have accommodated diversity?

At best, the proposed cuts to Pennsylvania higher education would lead to terrible unintended consequences for Pennsylvania higher education in general and for African-Americans in particular. At worst, the proposed cuts could lead to draconian results. Why not avoid both alternatives by heeding President Obama’s February 27th challenge to governors to invest in education?

There is indisputable evidence that documents the connections between economic recovery, job creation, and socio-economic mobility.

Thus, the very thought of performing radical surgery on the budgets of leading public universities should be sufficient cause to trigger a truly grass roots blue and white-collar response.

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