Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Reasons to Be Cheerful: The Five Best News Stories of 2008

January 5th, 2009 by Ajuan Mance

The new First Family on election night, Grant Park, Chicago.


Last year, as I was compiling my list of five Reasons to Be Cheerful for 2007, I remarked that, “perceptions of Black people’s relationship to college and university education are progressing much more slowly than Black people’s real life achievements [in this area].”

I predict that we will eventually look back on 2008 as the  year when public perceptions of Black achievement finally began to catch with reality. The biggest reason for this is, of course, the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States. His high visibility and the high visibility of his family and his cabinet members and advisors has exposed Americans of all races to the existence of Black folks whose lives bear little or no resemblance to the negative stereotypes that dominant media depictions of our people and our community.

The success of the Obama campaign is not, however, the only news that Black people can feel proud of this year. The big news for 2008 is that in many ways Black students and the institutions that support them are doing a better job of educating young Black men and women than ever before. Few of these stories were front page news; but media attention is no measure of the significance of an achievement or an event and in 2008, as in 2007, African Americans had an awful lot to feel good about. In fact, anyone who cares about the freedom, education, and social justice will find much to be optimistic about in the following reports:

  1. The election of the United States’ First Black president. It was the projection heard ’round the world. At 8pm Pacific Standard Time news outlets from coast to coast called the election in favor of Barack Obama; and they were right. This wasn’t a nail-biter like ’04 or a too-close-to-call debacle like ’00. The victory was decisive, and the effect was almost immediate. Nerdy Black kids all over the country breathed a sigh of relief as, in one fell swoop, Obama made it hip to be square. African Americans across the country reported a renewed faith in our stable-yet-flawed democracy as Black folks from California to Boston experienced unprecedented feelings of patriotism and belonging. And somewhere the ancestors were smiling.
  2. HBCUs Continue to Prioritize Commitment to Low-Income Students. In late 2008 the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) turned its focus to low-income students and the success of the nation’s flagship public universities at enrolling and educating this important population. JBHE found that at 42 of the nation’s 50 flagship universities, low-income students make up less that 25% of the overall student body. JBHE attributes this to the fact that flagship universities across the country rely heavily on SAT scores as a qualification for admissions. There is a strong correlation between family income and standardized test scores; as incomes go up, so do SAT scores. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) tend to place less emphasis on the SAT and other standardized measures and, thus, have been much more successful at attracting and enrolling low-income students. Indeed, at 89 of America’s 102 HBCUs, low-income students make up at least half of the student body. The flagship university with the highest proportion of students from families with an income lower than $55,000 is the University of New Mexico, with 45.3% receiving Pell Grants (federal grants to low-income students). The HBCU with the highest proportion of students from families with an income lower than $55,000 is Livingstone College, with 98.3% receiving Pell Grants.
  3. Predominately White Colleges and Universities Celebrate Pioneering Black Students. Recent years have seen an increasing number of majority white colleges and universities taking significant steps to commemorate their pioneering Black students. From statues and scholarships commemorating early Black students and staff, to classroom buildings and endowed professorships named for pioneering Black athletes and scholars, institutions from coast to coast are setting up permanent tributes to those brave men and women who integrated their classrooms and residence halls. Consider these three highlights from the past year: 1) On September 27, Lafayette University dedicated a statue to the memory of David McDonogh, who was not only the College’s first Black graduate, but also the first enslaved Black person known to have earned a college degree. 2) On May 10, the U.S. Naval Academy dedicated the Wesley Brown Field House, named in honor of its first African American graduate. 3) In 2008, the University of Nebraska named an endowed professorship in honor of Aaron Douglas. Douglas, a noted figure in the Harlem Renaissance and a long-time Fisk University faculty member, made history at Nebraska in 1922 when he became the first African American to earn an art degree at the flagship campus.
  4. Statistics Confirm that African Americans Continue to Makes Great Strides in Higher Education: Each year the Journal of Blacks In Higher Education provides a roster of data on Black educational attainment for the most recent year that statistics are available. In July 2008 JBHE reported that by 2006: the median earnings for African Americans with master’s degrees was equal to the median earnings of their white counterparts; the number of African Americans enrolled in graduate school had nearly tripled since 1990 (from 84,000 to 247,000), and the percentage of all graduates students who are Black reached 11.1% (African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population); the percentage of African American children between the ages of 5 and 17 whose parents are college graduates had more than quadrupled, from 4.9% in 1979 to 21.2%.
  5. Emory University Debuts It’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: In 2008, Atlanta’s Emory University established a resource for scholars and researchers that provides an unprecedented look into a part of the African American past. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database offers information on over 67,000 Africans transported on nearly 35,000 trans-Atlantic voyages between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Posted by Ajuan Mance


Posted in Academia, African Americans, Black Colleges, Black Students, Current Events, Higher Education, race

2 Responses

  1. Shelia

    Happy New Year Ajuan!! Good to “see” you in the new year.

    I hope that you and your family had a wonderful holiday, and that 2009 is full of hope and opportunity for you.

    And you’re right, this is all good news.

  2. Clnmike

    Yup those were good news about 2008.

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