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Beyond the rhetoric

A strategic solution to Black unemployment

By Harry C. Alford

NNPA Columnist

It is no secret that this recession has been especially difficult for Black Americans.  The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor show that while unemployment among whites is at about 8.8 percent, that number is nearly double — 15.8 percent for Blacks, and among all Black men the rate is nearly 20 percent.
That is based upon the most commonly used unemployment measure.  But a study did by the U.S. Congress’ Joint Economic Committee finds that the U6 measure — those who have given up looking for a job, or are working part time but want a full time job — the unemployment figure for Blacks is 24.9 percent — nearly one-in-four Black Americans. Along any axis of measurement, this recession has hit us with the force of an 18-wheel truck.  There appears to be no mercy as we are at the bottom of every economic “ladder.”
One piece of the data shows that there might be an approach to Black unemployment that could have a significant impact over the long term:  A college degree.  That appears to be the “ticket” to greater quality of life and economic success.  A degree can be the great equalizer.
The Joint Economic Committee report shows that “African Americans with a four-year college degree have an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.”  While this is still higher than the five percent unemployment rate for all college graduates, it is obviously far below the nearly 16 percent unemployment rate for all Blacks.  This corresponds to what financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz has recently written: “a Bachelor’s degree conveys a greater increase in earnings for [minority] students …”
So, how do we get Black kids to go to college?  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 about 20 percent of Blacks had a college degree and about 2.5 million Blacks were enrolled in a college or university in the fall of 2008, which is up from about 1.9 million in the fall of 2002.Not every child — Black or white — is going to fit into a traditional college or university where the four-year degree must be followed by one or more years of graduate school to be qualified to follow a career path.  That is true even for traditionally Black colleges and universities.There is another option, one which should be more fully explored especially in light of the statistics above:  Career-oriented colleges.
About two million students now attend private sector colleges and universities with Black students accounting for about 18 percent of that total or about 360,000.  These schools have changed dramatically over the past 30 years.  More than 90 percent of students at private sector institutions are now enrolled in degree programs, and 70 percent are full-time students.
Students who choose to attend career-oriented colleges do so for a variety of reasons, but one of the most common is the perception they can go directly from receiving a diploma to a job in any field from nursing, to culinary arts; and from industrial design to retail management.
Given these data, one might expect the Obama Administration to be going full-tilt in helping to improve the path to career-oriented colleges as a way to help reduce Black unemployment.  That isn’t happening.  In fact, the Department of Education is threatening to erect barriers in that path to do just the opposite.
Right now the Department is considering a rule known as “Gainful Employment.” The rule sounds good, but a better name would be the “Mandated Income-to-Loan Test” or the “Fewer-Choices-for-Students Act.” Whatever you call it, the rule would set an absolute ratio on how much a student must earn to how much he or she might owe in total loans. If a student’s chosen academic program fails the arbitrary ratio test, then the student loses her right to take federal loans.
As I recently wrote to the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan: “The Gainful Employment rule would disproportionally harm low-income and minority populations by discriminating against students who must borrow the needed tuition to attend college.”
Without access to Title IV financial aid, the Department of Education will eliminate the ability to gain a college degree for young Black men and women which as the Joint Economic Committee data show, is the only proven route out of high unemployment for that most vulnerable segment of the American population. For this reason, I hope the Department will abandon this proposed rule.
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