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Commitment on the Campuses

December 11, 1987

Californians and others who live in the Southwest are well aware that minorities are the fastest-growing segments of their school-age populations. What still is not as readily acknowledged is that college enrollment of minorities, except for Asians, is growing at nothing like the same pace. The disparity in these two trends spells trouble for California and the rest of the Southwest if schools and colleges don't stir themselves.

Some of these stirrings are occurring, according to a new report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. But in general the commission found that programs to increase the number of blacks and Latinos who enroll in college, to improve their graduation rates and to encourage them to be teachers themselves operate outside the mainstream of campus life and often aren't high on administrators' priority lists. That must change.

The 1980 census showed that Latino students made up 25% of California's public-school enrollment, 25% in Arizona, 30% in Texas and 46% in New Mexico. Adding black and Asian students means that minorities clearly will soon make up the majority in California schools. By 1984, 74.7% of blacks in the Southwest between 18 and 24 had completed high school, compared with 83% of whites and 60.1% of Latinos. In the same year, 28% of whites that age were enrolled in college, compared with 20.4% of blacks and 17.9% of Latinos.

A higher proportion of minority students than of whites attend community colleges. Fewer of them transfer to four-year colleges and universities, and fewer graduate. "If rates of participation in (higher) education do not change and if the number of minority elementary-school students continues to rise," the report says, "the prospect is that the overall level of education in the Southwest will drop." This is a prospect that no one can afford.

The public schools obviously need to turn out better-prepared graduates, and the report urges colleges to work more closely with schools in their areas. But the colleges themselves can do more.

The report's first recommendation, for example, is simply that colleges recognize that students come from different backgrounds and that those backgrounds should be reflected in what and how the students are taught. At Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles, for example, Anglo faculty members attend workshops on how best to build on the strengths inherent in each culture.

Another basic recommendation involves more active recruiting of students, especially for specialized fields and graduate study. For example, a national consortium of 50 universities and about the same number of business organizations offers fellowships to minority students who show promise in engineering. There's an urgent need to encourage more minority students to go into teaching as well. In California, only 6.6% of the public-school teachers are Latino despite the huge Latino student population. Figures are even lower for black and Latino faculty members on community-college and university campuses.

The single factor in the success of any of these efforts appears to be the commitment at the top. Too many university programs, even the most well meaning, have been add-ons, outside the regular functioning of the campus. Everyone at every level must hold improving educational opportunities for minority students as a top priority, and only the people at the top can make sure that they do.

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