- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

Grammy winner Kanye West’s debut CD was titled “The College Dropout.” His follow-up is called “Late Registration.” I don’t know what comes next, though I’m betting it’s not “Student Loan Default.”

After Grammy, Billboard and MTV awards, a Time magazine cover and what seems like billions of dollars in record sales, Mr. West has gotten along remarkably well despite dropping out of Chicago State University, where his mother was a professor. Few other dropouts are so fortunate.

That’s why I’m relieved Mr. West’s latest title implies, at least, an important truism I’ve been trying to convey to my own impressionable 16-year-old hip-hop-loving son: ‘Tis more fruitful to drop into college than to drop out of it.

New census figures offer dramatic evidence of education’s big payback: Income for African-Americans with a four-year college degree has increased so much since the civil rights advances of the 1960s we have almost closed our historical income gap with four-year college-educated whites.

In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, blacks with a bachelor’s degree had a median income of $36,694, which is almost as high as the $38,667 median income of whites with a bachelor’s degree.

Unfortunately, black women graduates have closed the gap much more effectively than black males, and the gap between races seems easier to explain than that between sexes.

The median income of black males with a bachelor’s degree was $41,916, almost 20 percent lower than the $51,138 median income of similarly educated white males. Similarly educated black women had a median income of $33,142, lower than black male graduates, but about 10 percent higher than the $30,082 median income for similarly degreed white women.

White women’s income looks lower than black women’s partly because college-educated black women are less likely to leave their career to raise children, Census Bureau surveys find.

And the gap between white and black males is partly explained by the likelihood white professionals still tend to serve economically better-off clients and markets than those many black professionals serve.

Nevertheless, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education observed: “This is not to discount the value of a college degree for black men. African-American men with a bachelor’s degree or higher still earn on average nearly double the income of black men with a high school diploma.” In fact, the Census found, blacks with a doctorate are beginning to show higher incomes on average than similarly educated whites.

Harder to explain than the race gap is the gap between the sexes within each race, partly because it has not received much attention until recent years.

Since 1975, the overall number of male students in college has remained relatively steady, while the number of women ballooned from 5 million in 1975 to 8 million in 1997, according to the American Council on Education.

Significantly, the disparity was greatest in families making less than $30,000 yearly: Women made up 68 percent of those families’ college enrollees.

For black families in that same period, there was a 30 percent increase in bachelor’s degrees awarded black men and degrees awarded and an 77 percent for black women. Black women at some historically black campuses outnumber black men 2-to-1.

Some observers say the gender gap is explained at least partly by the wider options high-school-educated men may have compared to similarly educated women. Unfortunately, the only option exercised by far too many young black males is jail — if they’re not killed first.

Black males born today have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison during their lifetime, compared to a 1-in-17 chance for white males, according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based prison research organization.

The result has only widened the gender gap among successful blacks. Young black men, for various reasons, have not valued education as much as black women have. No one is better suited to rectify that than we older black men are.

In the decade since the Million Man March stepped into Washington, numerous black male organizations have emerged in churches and neighborhoods to take our young men and boys under their wings and show the value of education as a key to success. We need more to join. As I am sure Kanye West would agree, late registration is better than none at all.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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