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Funding disparities affect black students

Judah Martin

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Over the last nearly seven years of her undergraduate career, Vaughn, 24, transferred from a historically black university, then to a community college and finally to The University of Alabama. After parking off-campus and walking to class, she shows up late more often than she intends to. Sometimes, she neglects to get out of bed altogether.

“I always knew that I hated school, but I need to go to college to be successful,” she said.

In a perfect world, Vaughn might be have been an honor student.

After all, her mother graduated from college and her family is far from wealthy, but they have always been comfortable, Vaughn said. She also attended one of the best-funded public schools in Tuscaloosa County – Northridge High School. There, students have access to the AP classes and various honors programs that are proven to create college-bound students. Somehow, though, Vaughn was never informed about any of 
these programs.

Now a telecommunication and film major with a minor in creative writing, Vaughn matriculated through a series of basic education courses she had no interest in that failed to prepare her for some of the coursework she would encounter in college.

Even as she now does well in the classes that challenge her to explore her creativity, she said she is worried that she will not pass the astronomy course she is taking to fulfill the University’s natural science requirements. Gradually, she resigned herself to being what she described as an “A-B-C” student.

“I always feel like I’m the dumbest person in the room,” she said. “Everyone in my classes always understands [the material], and it’s like I need someone to explain it to me. It’s like they all learned things before 
I did.”

Vaughn transferred to Northridge from Tuscaloosa Middle School, which is now Tuscaloosa Magnet School. According to a 2010 report from The Tuscaloosa News, the school has been accused of disproportionately tracking black students into 
lower-level classes.

“[The term] ‘at-risk’ refers to more than just a lack of resources,” said Undre Phillips, founder and director of Kick Start College, a program devoted to educating low-income and at-risk students about opportunities in 
higher education.

“It’s a lack of knowledge,” Phillips said. “There have been studies that have shown the significance of exposure to college [in the eighth grade]. That’s the prime academic indicator of if students [will succeed in college.]”

For students like Vaughn, access to honors classes might be the difference between succeeding in college or entering college underprepared.

“It’s like, in elementary school everyone is taught that two plus two equals four,” she said. “But not everybody is taught how to read ‘Moby Dick.’ ”

The correlation between public school funding and college attendance is well-documented, according to Michael Malley, a graduate student and research associate for the University’s Education Policy Center. Malley also serves as president for the Elliot Society, the service honors society that oversees Kick Start College.

Working with Education Policy Center Director Stephen Katsinas, Malley has co-authored several studies that trace, among other things, the correlation between education funding and student achievement rates.

According to Malley, the three most important factors that determine a student’s success in college are access, persistence and completion. While access to higher education is improving across socio-economic levels, he said, many of the students to whom higher learning has become available are struggling to keep up with their course work.

“Access has increased dramatically, but persistence has not mirrored that trend,” Malley said. “As we increase enrollment of [students from] in-state schools, what we’re seeing is a huge need for remedial education [among incoming freshmen]. These students are coming in unprepared.”

Black students across the nation must grapple with a persistent achievement gap. According to data from the American College Testing Program, the average score for black students who took the ACT in 2013 was a mere 16.9. For white students, the average 
was 22.2.

As Malley’s research indicates, much of the blame for this gap lies on the inability of under-funded schools to provide students with college preparation and advanced courses. Nonetheless, even black students in well-funded schools face forms of discrimination like being disproportionately tracked into low-level curriculum, according to the National Education Association.

“I would say money is not the only factor that reduces student readiness,” Malley said. “I went to an affluent suburban high school, but our counseling function was not superb. I was not told about financial aid.”

Still, education funding helps. In cities like Tuscaloosa and Northport, the obstacles encountered by minority students across the U.S. are compounded by the county’s history of segregation, integration and re-segregation in 
city schools.

As in the days of Jim Crow segregation, most of the county’s black students are once again attending poorly-funded, segregated public schools. The consequences of this segregation are clear: Central High School, Tuscaloosa’s least funded and most black high school, consistently fails to meet the minimum standards of the Alabama Department of Public Education each year.

Although Vaughn, who finished high school in 2009, did not attend a majority black school, she lost most of her best friends when the Tuscaloosa school system voted once again to further rezone the school districts in 2007. For the rest of her time there, she said, she was one of only a few 
black students.

“In Alabama, they have specific zones where only these people that live in this area can go to this school,” Vaughn said. “Northridge, Central and Bryant were constantly changing the zones because they were… I’m not going to say ‘trying to keep certain people out,’ but, you know. Different people that may have lived on the west side that went to [Tuscaloosa Middle School], instead of going to Central they went to Northridge. Well, they rezoned it so they would have to go 
to Central.”

Malley said he worries about the impact Tuscaloosa’s rezoning will have on the city’s future. According to an August 2015 study from the Education Policy Center, “the per capita income of Alabama’s citizens is directly related to the funding of Alabama’s public higher education system.”

Put simply, students who have access to a good education get better jobs and pay higher taxes, thus creating a self-fulfilling cycle of well-funded education and infrastructure. Without a well-funded education system that meets the needs of all students, Alabama will continue to fall behind.

Even though Vaughn struggles with some classes, she said, she found her niche in the University’s TCF department. In her creative writing classes, she explores her dark sense of humor. Her dream, she said, is to make films exploring the dark story lines she writes about.

Working 32 hours a week at Buffalo Phil’s in addition to course work may not help her get to that place in her life any faster, but she said she plans on getting there all the same.

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Funding disparities affect black students