The “dirty open secret” of American universities

Of the nearly 4,000 four- and two-year colleges in the United States, about 40% are publicly funded.

However, this funding is not evenly distributed. One to study of the Center for American Progress found that public colleges spend about $ 5 billion less per year educating students of color than they spend on white students.

How the American higher education system has become so unequal is the subject of a new book, “The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal, and How to Fix ThemBy Adam Harris, longtime Atlantic team editor and educational journalist.

Image of the cover of the book for "The State must provide"

The subtle crunch of snow under your feet is rare in Alabama, but a fluffy white powder coated the ground when I arrived at the Alabama A&M University campus in Normal, Alabama, for my first semester in January 2010. The wrapped flakes clung to buildings like fitted sheets. This made the Hill, as the students called the campus, indescribably beautiful. The university is nestled in the rolling Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama. It was the third college founded in the state to educate black students after the Civil War, and the first with agricultural education in mind. But for me, A&M was just a place where I felt right at home.

I was probably always going to end up going to A&M University. Some of my earliest memories are of the drum majors – high steps in brown capes, sporty felt hats – leading the group with complex masses as if they were going to fight. My mother went to A&M in the 1980s; my uncle had it too. In fact, he was a drum major himself. Still, it took me six months after high school to realize this was the place for me.

My parents would probably say it was my hard head that landed me at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, a quiet town in East Texas with a Walmart, a Taco Bell, and not much else. The real reason was basketball. I had been drafted by a handful of Division I programs: Stanford, Cornell, Murray State, Brown, and others, but suffered an injury during my senior year of high school. Lon Morris was my way of showing the Boy Scouts that I still had him. Those coaches never called back, but early in my freshman year, those at Alabama A&M did. I jumped at the chance. It helped that my sister was already there in second year on the volleyball team. A&M was no longer a proxy house, where my family was educated; it was my home.

The snow had given the impression that the aging campus infrastructure had character, but as the first few days of the semester wore on, it melted. I needed a break. I used to in high school get in the car and drive when I needed stress relief. Old habits die hard. Lucky for me, there was a whole city that I hadn’t explored yet. Downtown Huntsville wasn’t much to see, and every time I went to the mall I ended up buying something I didn’t need, so about two weeks after I arrived – after the start of classes and homework began to pile up – exploring meant visiting other colleges in town.

There was Oakwood University, another historically black college, built in 1896. There were community colleges: Drake State and Calhoun. And then there was the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH), founded as a satellite campus of the University of Alabama in 1950, which had become a separate entity. UAH was a free kick from A&M, and since it was public, I wouldn’t have to go through security. As a bonus, his library was open three hours longer than A&M’s, so, at the very least, I could try to be productive.

At around four in the afternoon, I loaded my backpack, locked my door, and headed for the elevator to Foster Hall, a five-story red Tetris brick building which, after being built in 1993, was the most recent male dormitory at A&M. The elevator was broken; probably abused when moving in, I thought. Instead, I ran up the stairs, hopped in my car, got around potholes on campus, and drove through town.

Coming to the UAH campus was like lifting a veil. There were newly constructed buildings, the grass was finely tended, and fountains sprang from the artificial ponds; the school looked like it had had a facelift over the past few years – or, at the very least, had received a good upkeep.

“American colleges and universities have an open secret: They have never given black people an equal chance to succeed. “

Once settled into the library, I dug a bit. The UAH was founded in the 1950s, in part because segregation was the law. There were two colleges for black students in the city, Oakwood University, the private college affiliated with Seventh-day Adventists, and Alabama A&M, which was publicly funded, but white students couldn’t either. Alabama’s law that separated black and white students was known as Section 256, and although it was not formally implemented until 1901, when the state adopted its constitution, its effects – locking blacks into an unequal education system, if education was allowed at all – had been an unwritten rule since before the Civil War.

Several states have made it a crime to teach a slave to read and write. South Carolina was the first, in 1740. Georgia followed in 1759. In 1833, Alabama imposed a fine of up to $ 500 as a punishment for those caught teaching to read. to slaves. North Carolina has banned black education altogether. The bans did not stop black people, however; they started to learn in secret – they risked the whip to learn. When slavery ended, discrimination remained, but so did the thirst for learning. Southern states have erected every possible barrier to education, and blacks have broken them time and time again. Northern states have erected barriers as well, though not always so blatantly.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, it was obvious that Alabama would choose to spend more money on creating a new school for white students than on integrating. Even more infuriating to me than the roots of the institution was that the differences between UAH and A&M remained so stark. I observed several little things that day on the UAH campus. If there had ever been potholes, they had been filled. The dorms were new, or, if not, they had been renovated; the library had books, journal subscriptions and magazines that I had never even heard of, including the one I write for now. And then there were the great things, which I would learn later: UAH had almost double the Alabama A&M endowment, and less than 10 percent of its student body was black, while more than 30 percent of the town of Huntsville was black. It was a regional institution serving the city, and yet it did not. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, there were many buildings on my campus in need of modernization. The heat fell in some classrooms. The shuttle never seemed to work when it was coldest outside.

Part of it could have been attributed to the growls of a melodramatic student – the one who had seen the other side and believed the grass was greener. But once I was no longer a student, I learned that my experience was not an anomaly. Then I started to cover higher education and realized how standard this was for black students across the United States.

American colleges and universities have a dirty open secret: They have never given black people an equal chance to succeed. Public institutions that enroll large numbers of black students have been crippled by limited public funding; those who have few black students have been filled with it. The patrimonial dynamics of private institutions are no different. A college education is key to the middle class and necessary for most high paying jobs, but access to such education has never been equally provided. America claims to have the best colleges in the world, but in recent years their surfaces have started to show wear and tear, revealing the structural inequalities lurking beneath – and the excavation is only just beginning.

State must provide by Adam Harris. Copyright 2021 by Adam Harris. Excerpted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

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