Guest post by Shannon Ellis
I need your help.
Gwen has offered me this platform to speak up in defense of a post-high school education, especially for Black students. Right now, increasing numbers of students of all colors (and their parents) are being sold on the idea that education just isn’t worth the time and money.
They would be wrong.
A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Oyin Adedoyingave us all the dismal report. “Black enrollment grew from 282,000 in 1966 to more than 2.5 million in 2010 but from 2010 to 2020, as overall enrollments fell, the number of Black students fell even more sharply, to 1.9 million.”
Adedoyin cites a number of very valid reasons for this decline including the rising cost of college, skepticism about the value of a degree, economic hardship in many Black communities, and Black students not feeling welcome on campuses. I wish this were not true but on any given day at predominantly white institutions (PWI) this is the experience of many of our Black students.
Many of us who are White work to understand the experience of isolation and even hate that a Black student may experience at PWIs. I work with colleagues in the field of student services who face the truths of such experiences and embrace the mission to create a more welcoming and supportive climate for Black students and others who have been historically marginalized, excluded, and discriminated against. I am not alone. Staff and faculty of all colors with vast life experiences stand ready to work with Black scholars to make the leap into a PWI classroom, Western curriculum, loan debt, and a predominantly White surrounding community.
It is no wonder that historically Black colleges and universities are seeing record numbers of applicants in the midst of decline everywhere else. Yet we know that this is not an option for many Black students who want or need encouragement to pursue a post-high school skill and degree. PWIs struggle, have successes, hire more Black faculty and staff, engage in successful and unsuccessful recruitment and retention efforts, and continue to move forward even with setbacks. PWIs strive to be better places for Black students who want to pursue a vocational, community college, or university degree.
As institutions find effective ways to market themselves to Black communities, we need to acknowledge the realities many Black students experience. We need to assure Black students and their families that we mean it when we say we will put the time and money into change. Many of us commit to be leaders and allies, but no one more than Black students stands to suffer lifelong setbacks if we do not succeed. Put in a more positive way, compared with other historically excluded groups of people, Black students stand to gain more from American higher education in economic gains, generational wealth, career advancement, and health. Maybe even more than White students.
While attending a college or university is not essential for all, providing the opportunity for everyone to realize their potential is. Do you have a relative, coworker, neighbor that someone talked out of pursuing a post-high school vocational program or community college path or four-year degree? Maybe you know someone who expressed an interest in pursuing an educational program after high school but also expressed a lack of confidence. Well-meaning people often believe they are doing the right thing by affirming that self-doubt instead of working through the many ways to address each worry (money?) and set back (tutoring?). In my experience, it is often a loving and well-meaning friend or relative who affirms the fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence that often surfaces when someone talks about “going to college.” If we think we are saving someone from debt or racism or frustration or even physical and mental harm, let’s stop. We are not.
College graduates earn a million more dollars over a lifetime than those without a degree. Taking on loan debt is only a mistake if you allow yourself to drop out with no degree and increased earning power with which to repay the debt. View it as an investment and exhaust every scholarship application easily found online and in the brains of professionals in an institution’s financial aid office. Sticking with a full-time course schedule designed to get a scholar out in two or four years saves money in the long run (tuition goes up every single year) and gets a student out into the workforce with a salary and benefits. Remember, we are playing the long game here – one for a lifetime.
Who do you know who could use that nudge, affirmation, and encouragement to sign up for a class? Did you support someone’s decision to abandon such a step in their life? Would now be a good time to go back and offer guidance and support? Maybe it’s you who told yourself that higher education wasn’t for you. Can I give you that gentle push to take classes, apply for financial aid, and connect with someone in the campus multicultural center?
Let’s be unrelenting in our campaign to create access and opportunity for Black students in the world of higher education. Regardless of a student’s academic record, there is an available community college, vocational program, or four-year school. The payoffs occur over decades of career advancement and earnings that are also associated with better health and longer lives. At any age, Black students should create a lifetime of opportunities through education, so no door is closed.
Shannon Ellis is Vice President for Student Services at the University of Nevada, Reno. Ellis has served as president of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and has published numerous articles and chapters in professional journals and books. Her ongoing research focuses on organizational transformation and the role of student services in tomorrow’s college and university.