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Presenting the Good News About Black College Students

January 03, 1988|R. RICHARD BANKS | R. Richard Banks is the associate director of the Upward Bound program at Stanford University. and

I wish that I could put an end to the clamor that the media have made recently about racism on college campuses and about the plight of black college students.

Though factually accurate, there's something amiss in the media coverage, an element of distortion. Every headline, every story that highlights the supposed rise in racism and the plight of black college students handicaps more black students than it helps.

In harping on the gloom and doom themes, the media give us only the bad news, and make it seem much worse than it is. Last year's stories give the impression that the few black students who make it to college spend all their time battling campus racism or failing their classes and adding to the attrition statistics. Such is not the case.

What is the case is that hearing only bad news engenders self-defeating attitudes in black high-school and college students who wonder, "How can I possibly succeed when the campus is so racist and all the other black students are failing anyway?"

The media preoccupation with the difficulties and drawbacks of college implicitly tells students, "Maybe this isn't for you."

In giving students such a message, the media exacerbate rather than alleviate the plight of black students.

The alternative is not to ignore racist incidents on college campuses--the white- sheeted cross burners at the Citadel Military Academy in South Carolina deserved to be dealt with harshly--or to overlook the substantial decline in college attendance among black students. Rather, the media should add a theme to the coverage: Tell what's good on the college campuses and among the black students there.

Good news abounds:

--Colleges are as eager as ever to enroll qualified black students, a new emphasis that's reflected in college recruiting drives that are aimed at those who might not enroll in college without encouragement. Far from being unwanted, black students are in great demand as colleges have begun to realize that demographic trends will force them to depend more and more on minority students to maintain their enrollment levels.

--Student support structures once scarce at predominantly white colleges--black fraternities and sororities, black professional and pre-professional organizations, black student unions--have become so commonplace and so successful that we take them for granted, forgetting the tremendous progress that they represent.

--Many black students are excelling. There were many news stories about racial conflict at Stanford, but how many people know that 3 of the last 10 Stanford students to receive the coveted Rhodes scholarship were black? Blacks make up only about 6% of the student body, yet nearly 30% of Stanford's Rhodes scholars over the past four years. Such accomplishments say more than an isolated racist incident does about the experience and roles of black students on white college campuses.

--Career opportunities for educated blacks are better than ever. For example, a black woman who just received her Ph.D. in English from Stanford received 19 job offers. That's right, 19. The fields to which so many of my peers have flocked--investment banking, consulting, advertising, engineering--were beyond the realm of possibility for most black students a generation ago.

--The GRE and SAT scores of black students, although still significantly lower than for white students, have been rising at a much faster rate than white students' scores during the past several years. While the average verbal and math SAT scores of black students increased by 4.2% and 6.2% respectively between 1976 and 1985, the average scores of white students actually declined slightly, by 0.4% and 0.6%, during the same period.

Those are newsworthy facts, but they are not nearly as well publicized as isolated racist incidents. By including the good news, the media would present the entire picture and thereby give students an image of college that shows them how they can and why they should succeed--as well as the obstacles that lie in their path. Only when we equip black students with a knowledge of both the rewards and the possible pitfalls of college life will they develop the motivation and perseverance necessary to fulfill the promise that higher education embodies.

As the challenges of international competition push us to advance our nation's educational and technological expertise, and as minority students make up an ever-increasing proportion of the young minds to whom we must look to meet the challenges, the fate of our country will coincide more and more with the fate of these students.

My wish that black students hear the good news about college expresses my hope not only for their success but for the success of our nation as well. If they to do not succeed, neither will we.

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