Minority students need to see opportunities, not obstacles


CORVALLIS - Many African American, Hispanic American and other minority students who have the ability to attend college need to more carefully balance the cost of a higher education against its lifelong benefits before they decide it's the wrong choice, too unfamiliar or too expensive, experts say.

As tuition and fees have risen in recent years, many educators report a direct impact on minority enrollments. But it may be time to fight back with the good news as well, they say.

"I understand the concerns faced by many of these students who come from low-income backgrounds," said Larry Griggs, director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Oregon State University.

"It's a fact college costs more than it used to," Griggs said. "The students may be the first ones in their family to ever go to college, it's unfamiliar, and the cost of four or five years of higher education might be more than their family's annual income. It's a scary proposition and a lot of young people feel like they are stepping off into the unknown."

While Griggs says that society needs to do everything it can to provide financial assistance and keep college affordable, it's equally true that the students need to look at all of the benefits - not just the costs - and recognize that going to college is probably the best single investment they will ever make.

"Without a doubt, our brightest students need to invest in their own lives and learn about all the advantages a college education will give them," Griggs said.

Studies back up this argument. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in the mid-1990s a male college graduate can expect to earn about $700,000 more than a high school graduate over a 40-year working lifetime. Men graduating from a four-year, public institution such as OSU with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn back $28.40 for every dollar spent on tuition, fees, room and board. Females will earn back $18.60.

At the same time, high school graduate incomes in real, inflation-adjusted terms have been dropping steadily since the early 1970s, the data show.

Concerns that minority students and many others may be hearing all the bad news about the cost of college and not enough about the benefits recently prompted a consortium of 1,200 colleges and universities around the nation to begin a "College is Possible" campaign.

"The fact of the matter is that every student in America who works hard and makes the grade has lots of choices about where they go to college, how much they want to pay and the ways in which they finance their college studies," said U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, announcing the program.

For people seeking more information, this initiative has set up a web site - www.CollegeIsPossible.org - and a toll-free number at the Department of Education, 1-800-433-3243. It includes suggestions on costs, financial aid, sources of assistance and what students should do to prepare themselves for college.

And admissions specialists at OSU also are geared up to help students examine the costs and payoffs of a university education. They can be reached toll-free at 1-800-291-4192.

Fighting negative perceptions is a big part of the battle, some experts say. A study by the American Council on Education found that African Americans were 83 percent more likely than whites to think college was not affordable, and Hispanics were 79 percent more likely to hold such beliefs.

Those impressions apparently carry over to enrollments. In 1996, the last year for which Census Bureau data is available, 36.2 percent of traditional college-age whites were attending college, compared to 27 percent of African Americans and 20.1 percent of the Hispanics in similar age groups.

Sheila Roberts, coordinator of financial aid for OSU's Educational Opportunity Program, says it can be difficult to work through the obstacles and persuade many people of the advantages of college.

"As college costs have risen I see more pressure and tension every year," Roberts said. "But if students get their applications in early, make sure they have their financial aid applications in by Jan. 31, they can almost always put together financial packages to make things work out."

Other new, innovative programs, such as OSU Statewide, can also help to bring college educations literally into every town and home in Oregon, if that's what students need or prefer.

The changing demographics and challenges of the future, Griggs said, make it more essential than ever that everyone be brought into the educated mainstream.

"Non-traditional students are rapidly becoming the way of the future and the key to America's economic advancement," Griggs said. "Our ethnic minorities, older-than-average, single parent, rural isolated or first generation students are the ones we need to reach out and serve. At OSU we're doing everything we can to help. But the students themselves have to see the possibilities for their own future."