"A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Is the 1972 slogan of the United Negro College Fund less relevant today, with racial integration the norm at all levels of education? Some think it may be, but Larry E. Rivers, president of Fort Valley State University in Georgia, disagrees. His op-ed piece, published Jan. 27, in The State Journal, maintains historically black colleges and universities continue to serve a vital function, even as funds and academic talent steadily shift to predominantly white institutions. Now more than ever, he implies, with a college degree becoming a basic requirement for economic survival, it is important to mentor those of all races who need a hand in achieving the passport to success.
It might be expected Mary Sias, president of Frankfort's Kentucky State University, would agree with that viewpoint. Indeed, in outlining to KSU regents how her institution might cope with the anticipated cutbacks resulting from the state budget shortfall, she set some priorities: The very last programs to suffer reductions, if she has her way, would be those providing developmental education for the 81 percent of students requiring remedial courses when they come to the university, and those offering "need-based" financial assistance.
Rivers, in his commentary, contrasts the familial atmosphere of traditionally black schools with the "sink or swim" mentality at many mainstream universities. Pointing to the successful careers of thousands who got their start on campuses like his own, he argues the mentoring paid off, not just for the students, but for the professions and the larger society they ended up serving. The inference is many who sank in the "sink or swim" college environment might have become swimmers with timely guidance in their educational endeavors. Not of Olympic caliber, perhaps, but valuable contributors, nonetheless.
Of course, race is not necessarily the dividing line between collegiate haves and have-nots. Barack Obama, for example, apparently did not require special assistance in achieving academic distinction at Columbia University and Harvard Law School. What institution of higher learning would not be proud to list a serious presidential contender among its alumni? But few students of any race possess the political and intellectual gifts of the now-famous African-American son of a Kenyan economist and a Kansas iconoclast. The odds of anyone ending up in a campaign for president are somewhat akin to those of a young man finding his way into the National Basketball Association from pickup games on the streets of Frankfort.
If Kentucky reaches the goal of doubling the number of bachelor's degree holders by 2020, it won't happen by focusing only on students who reach campus with exceptional academic abilities. Rather, success will come from improving basic preparation and extending guidance to those who need it. That's a job Frankfort's university seems uniquely equipped to tackle, provided it can survive the budget debacle of 2008.