Jazmin Flores Peña
As a result of the tireless efforts of education equity advocates and Black civil rights activists, who have worked diligently to dismantle Jim Crow Laws, push for the adoption of affirmative-action policies, and make college more affordable and accessible for low-income students and students of color, higher education has made considerable strides in becoming more equitable. Over the last sixty years, the share of college attendees from historically underrepresented minority groups increased even faster than the total student population from 1996 to 2016. For Black students, enrollment has increased from 282,000 in 1966 to more than 2.7 million in 2021.
Still, despite the growth in enrollment and demonstrated benefits of having more students attend college, the rising cost of college compounded with colleges not recruiting and enrolling Black students at the same rate as non-Black students has led to a decline in college enrollment for Black students over the last decade. From 2010 to 2020, the number of Black students on campuses fell sharply to 1.9 million, resulting in an underrepresentation of Black students at public flagship universities in most states.
Furthermore, while Black student enrollment has been on the decline since 2010, decline in enrollment has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, enrollment among Black students fell 18 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2021, at the height of the pandemic, with an even sharper decline among men. Enrollment among Black men dropped 23.5 percent, relative to a 15 percent drop for Black women over that same time period. These numbers are alarming. The decline in college enrollments among Black students indicates a regress in our nation’s efforts to advance racial equity and ensure that America delivers on the promise of equal opportunity for all students.
Why does this matter?
Though decline in college enrollment among Black students were on the decline prior to the pandemic, COVID-19 exposed deep structural inequities in the U.S. health, economic, and education systems. Consequently, our nation now faces an incredibly difficult task to restore faith in our government and systems.
As it stands, our education system does not do enough to combat the increasing cost of college tuition, support first-generation low-income college students, and make college more accessible for all. Our education system is not adequately preparing students to go to college, with many Black and Latino students disproportionately getting stuck in remedial classes, further dissuading students from pursuing a four-year college degree. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to address the underlying policies and structural inequities that limit students from succeeding and ensure all students regardless of their race, ethnicity, or socio-economic background can equally benefit from education’s transformative power.
Education’s power to act as a catalyst for social good can only be fully realized if it is equitable. That means that as a nation, we must ensure higher education is affordable and accessible. We can start to address the decline in college enrollments among Black students by:
For decades, the cost of attending college has skyrocketed even as state funding for public colleges and universities has declined, making college affordability and accessibility more challenging for low-income minority students. A report published by The Education Trust found that college student loans are particularly burdensome for Black students. This disparate impact is especially concerning given that the nation’s most robust college affordability program for low-income students, the Pell Grant, awards twice as many Black Pell Grant recipients than non-Black Pell Grant recipients. The report also finds that Black women hold more student debt than any other group one year after completing a bachelor’s degree- with an average of $38,800 in federal undergraduate loans. Crippling loan repayments further prevents low-income minorities from accessing wealth-building opportunities like owning a home, saving for retirement, or reaching the financial stability promised to college-degree seekers.
Furthermore, doubling the Pell Grant is an investment in America’s Future. Research indicates that living a middle-class lifestyle is more attainable after earning a college degree. Still, for our nation’s low-income students, who make up roughly 31 percent of today’s college undergraduates and who come from non-white backgrounds (47 percent), the promise of reaching a middle-class lifestyle remains unattainable due to accrued student debt.
The Pell Grant once covered nearly 80 percent of the cost of a four-year public college degree for students from working families. Today, due to the rampant growth of college tuition, it only covers a third of the cost. This has left many students from low- and middle-income families with no choice but to take on burdensome student loans to pursue a college degree, dissuading students from enrolling. By doubling the funding for Pell Grants, Congress has an opportunity to create a long-term and systemic solution to improve the lives of our nation’s most economically disadvantaged students
According to the Clearinghouse, there is one bright spot in a sea of troubling data: the growth of dual enrollment. Early data for Fall 2022 shows that dual enrollment grew by 11.5% from Fall 2021, almost entirely offsetting the decline in enrollment at two-year institutions.
Dual enrollment programs and early college high schools have proven time and again to be the catalyst for increased college access and success and are critical tools in preparing young people for the demands of a postsecondary education. These innovative approaches reimagine high schools, build alignment between high school and colleges, and create pathways to career success, especially for historically marginalized communities.
The administration has already shown its commitment to young people through investments in education and the workforce. Now is the time to deliver on President Biden’s campaign promise to allow Pell Grants to be used to expand dual enrollment programs for young people from low-income families. Early College Pell grants should be tailored to the needs of younger scholars and be carefully designed to ensure that students are able to maximize their awards, academically and financially. As an example, the College in High School Alliance’s Early College Pell proposal outlines a number of considerations for rigorously testing the expansion of Pell grants to younger students.
By expanding qualifying Pell expenditures to include college while in high school programs, more young people will begin their journeys to a great first job. Early College Pell is both an investment in our nation’s youth, and a successful future.
In order for students of color to fully reach their potential and to have a shot at the American Dream, our nation’s leaders must be bold and make the kinds of investments that will serve as the catalyst to making this dream a reality. Our future workers, voters, innovators, thinkers, and leaders depend on it.