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Community colleges and empowerment of the African-American community

Jabari Simama, Ph.D. | 2/21/2014, 6 a.m.
Black History Month should be a time when we do more than recall famous African-Americans and recount obscure facts about ...

Black History Month should be a time when we do more than recall famous African-Americans and recount obscure facts about who invented what. It should be a time when we reflect upon how much progress has been made by the African-American community toward full participation in the American dream and chart a course for a brighter future.

I contend that greater achievement in education at all levels will be the key to achieving the aforementioned brighter future.

There has been a century-old debate around what models best address the educational needs of the African-American community. It began with the establishment of historical black colleges and universities prior to and in the 1860s and 1890s. It reignited in 1895 after Booker T. Washington suggested that blacks should “cast down their buckets” in a sea of vocational and industrial education in his address before the Atlanta Exposition in Piedmont Park.

In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois in his article, “The Talented Tenth” from The Negro Problem, countered, suggesting a liberal-arts educated “talented tenth” of African-American men would lead the way to black salvation. He wrote, “If we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men.” Du Bois was often thought to be prophetic, if not a seer, based on his prediction that race or what he referred to as the “color line” would plague America throughout the 20th century. Yet, even Du Bois could not have known that the education of black men would prove to be a major problem for the 21st century, but it has come to be.

New educational paradigm

African-American educators today have not moved the debate much beyond the dichotomy of technical and liberal arts education. And this phenomenon is unfortunate, some would say tragic, considering the chronic and widespread high school dropout and unemployment rates among African-Americans. Despite these problems, many educators today still approach middle and high school education as if they are ground zero for training students for liberal arts colleges or research-oriented universities only. The truth is only 46 percent of black students graduate from high school on time in Georgia and only 21 percent are deemed to be college-ready.

Nationally, only 18.7 percent of African-Americans 25 years of age and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of the 44 million blacks who live in America, only 3.7 percent are enrolled in college. These numbers are unacceptably low.

Michael Thurmond, superintendent for DeKalb School System, commented that his school system has its educational model inverted. “We focus 90 percent of our effort and budget on just 10 percent of our students,” he exhorted. “What about the other 90 percent?”

We need a new educational paradigm to address the educational needs of the black community. Some would argue there is a moral imperative to challenge the educational status quo in hopes of identifying a new pathway toward illumination and inspiration. Community and technical colleges, at their best, provide this.

As president of a fast-growing public technical college, I continue to encounter prejudice and lukewarm reception from high school principals and college counselors when I present them with data that demonstrate the benefits of technical and community college education. Consider this: All students at my college are guaranteed entrance if they graduate from high school or earn a GED. Ninety-eight percent of our graduates obtain jobs in their fields of study upon receiving a certificate, diploma or degree. Sixty percent graduate on time. There are as many students at my college over 50 years of age as there are under 25; thus, we are truly intergenerational. Students who complete two years of study at my college have the option of transferring to a four-year college or university or they can go directly into the work force.