By John J. Rooney
Back when I was in high school, none of my friends were going to college. It wasn't the thing to do in Swampoodle, the North Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood where I grew up during the Depression. The thing to do was find a job and make some money so you could help your family, buy nicer clothes, and maybe even get a used car.
Teachers and clergy decried the low rate of college enrollment in the community, but it wasn't part of the culture among its working-class Irish and Italian Americans. Later, their children and grandchildren would attend college at the same rate as other Americans. But at the time, I felt that going to college was going against the expectations of the neighborhood that was so much a part of my life.
A recent report by the Philadelphia-based OMG Center for Collaborative Learning noted that African American and Hispanic students in the region are attending college at rates well below that of whites. Educators and city officials are concerned about the discrepancy, and I share their concern.
However, just as attitudes toward higher education have changed in other ethnic groups, there is clear evidence that they are changing in the African American and Hispanic communities. I have seen it in the increased presence of students from these groups in undergraduate and graduate programs at La Salle University, where I have been a faculty member for many years. And I have seen it documented in a recent Pew Research Center report, which showed that the greatest increases in college attendance over the last several years were among Hispanic and African American students.
Yet the attitude toward college is changing more slowly among boys than it is among girls, and we find more young women than men attaining a higher education. At one time, the opposite was true due to societal restrictions on the kinds of positions considered suitable for women. Today, the constraints on boys are mostly self-imposed.
Many young men still believe college is not even worth thinking about, or that it is appropriate only for those interested in business or science and technology. They ignore or are unaware of opportunities for careers in education, social services, the health professions, and other areas, including careers that don't exist yet but are sure to develop in the future.
As with other ethnic groups where the prevailing cultural attitude toward college has changed, they will need help making the transition. Improved high school preparation, remedial programs, educational and career counseling, and financial aid are all valuable. Most important, however, is a change in perspective among urban youths. Once they can see themselves succeeding in one of the many careers available to college graduates, they will work out the means to use their talents and accomplish these goals.
College requires a major investment of time and effort. The realization that this investment will pay rich dividends in the future is crucial for minorities who are still underrepresented in higher education.