by Justin Bigelow,
National Human Services Assembly
On Tuesday night, the National Urban League hosted “#MamaIMadeIt: College Success for African Americans.” As a town hall style meeting with students and experts in the education and policy fields, the event sought to highlight the successes and challenges of increasing African American participation in higher education.
Two panel discussions during the event sought to identify and explore some of the barriers to success for African American youth in higher education. Insufficient preparation, coupled with lack of access to resources, was a primary barrier to college success identified by both panels. While many colleges and universities have programs to support students, such as mentoring and tutoring services, there is a disconnect between these programs and the students they serve. ‘Non-traditional’ students face unique challenges as well, including lack of funding, childcare, course delivery and modality.
What I found striking was how the challenges the panels discussed were the result of being economically depressed. Even as a white suburban youth, I dealt with many of the struggles the student panel discussed. I grew up working class without either parent having attained any post-secondary education. I failed to understand the system and timeline for college application, what resources were available for first-generation college students, and I didn’t have any direction beyond, “Go to school.” Because I was never told, “Here’s how to go to university,” I ultimately decided against going to college. When I returned years later, I was an independent, non-traditional student with concerns and needs that weren’t addressed in a welcome packet or orientation.
The experiences of the students on the panel, coupled with my own experience, illustrates Dr. Greg Carr’s point that the system does not operate in favor of non-traditional students. In response to these issues, organizations like NUL are implementing programs to support nontraditional students, and first-generation African Americans specifically, in order to address the issues they face in order to increase their odds for educational success. One of the successful programs mentioned was the National Urban League’s signature program Project Ready, which is specially designed to help African American and other urban youth prepare for college, work and life. Participants receive academic, social and cultural supports and opportunities designed to develop “readiness,” meaning they having the information and perspective necessary for success without needing remediation in college or career.[i]
While the majority of the points made at the event are applicable to all first-generation students, or those at an economic disadvantage, the panel also highlighted the specific obstacles faced by students of color, particularly African Americans. The simple fact that African Americans are disproportionately represented in the lower economic classes makes the drive for educational success and access a very important issue. It also raises questions of systemic exclusion from upward economic and social mobility because of race. These issues require more than just additional services to ensure success and access to higher education for African Americans. What is called for is a structural change in the systems that allow access to education and foster success for some but not for others.
The first of two panels consisted of two college graduates, Deon Jones and Valencia White, and two high school students, Kaija Pack and Mahni Hellams. The student panel was moderated by Juana Summers, education reporter for NPR. The second panel was Erika McConduit-Diggs, President & CEO of Urban League of Greater New Orleans; Marcia Foster, Senior Policy Analyst at CLASP; José Luis Santos, VP for Higher Education Policy and Practice at The Education Trust; and Mildred Otero, Chief Education Counsel to Sen. Tom Harkin. The expert panel was moderated by Dr. Gregg Carr, Department Chair of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.
[i] National Urban League: Project Ready website. http://iamempowered.com/programs/project-ready