During her time as an educator and researcher at the historically black institution Central State University, villager and writer Barbara Fleming, Ph.D., noticed a trend that troubled her: Black students seemed to have been less prepared to enter college by school districts. served them, making them less likely to complete post-secondary education. Another disturbing element is the heavy debt contracted by these students to pay for their college studies, whether they obtained a diploma or not.
These observations—along with a wealth of supporting data—form the core of Fleming’s latest work, “A Desperate Search for Higher Education Among the Ruins of Great Society.”
The work comprises two volumes; the first was released in November, with the second debuting this month. The volumes are published by Silver Maple Publications, a small press operated by Fleming and her husband, John E. Fleming, Ph.D.
Barbara Fleming spoke to The News last month about her two-year research and writing process and her intentions for the work, which she says will be a go-to text for educators and community leaders.
“I wrote it like this [they] would have a source they could go to to find out what’s going on with black education,” she said.
Fleming, an Alabama native with a doctorate in developmental psychology, is also a fiction writer and playwright, with several books published by Silver Maple. “Desperately Searching”, however, is the first large-scale academic text she publishes through her press.
Fleming said the work was spurred by her years as director of institutional planning and research at Central State.
“I wrote a five-year strategic plan [while in that position] that covered some of the same topics [in the books] regarding the impact of poverty at home and in the community on the lack of academic preparation of black students – especially students from large urban cities in the United States,” she said.
Both volumes of “Desperately Searching” are large and comprehensive, Fleming said, adding that the work was “not written to be read all at once.” Instead, each of the volumes’ chapters highlights a different aspect or topic within its unifying theme, and they have been written so that they can be read independently from the rest of the work.
“That way you can look at the issues that matter to you,” Fleming said.
In the book’s chapter on methodology, in which Fleming outlines her research methods and how data are presented, she writes that her original intention was for the book to be contained in a single volume. Fleming made the decision to publish the work in two volumes in order to “do justice to the subjects and issues which are discussed”.
She also writes that because “people process information differently,” much of the information included in each chapter is presented in both explanatory text and tables.
The first volume of “Desperately Searching” focuses primarily on elementary through high school students, with much of the data encompassing test scores along socio-economic divides.
Fleming’s methodology chapter indicates that, in order to simplify her analysis, she limited her research to black, white, Asian-American, and nonresident students.
Fleming gathered the data for the first volume primarily by studying several years of figures from two international tests, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, and from the National Assessment of Progress. Education (NAEP).
The book also includes chapters giving general information about black, single-parent households and the American welfare system; household income and child poverty; and urban charter schools.
Through the data, Fleming aims to demonstrate that many students — especially black students — in low-income urban and rural school districts are not having their educational needs met.
“These students have the lowest scores of any racial and ethnic group in the country…but it’s all part of the poor education system these kids are getting in this country,” she said. “We have, essentially, two education systems in America – one for the affluent upper and middle class and one for poor urban and rural families.”
Fleming said the second volume will focus on the unique experience of black students with enrollment, graduation and student loan debt.
She pointed out that education has always held a “high place” in the black community, but according to a 2019 study, the median annual income of black families is around $40,000. For this reason, she said, black students often have to rely on student loans or other financial aid to attend college.
“It’s not a trivial thing – [take out a loan] when you don’t understand the implications of defaulting on that loan and what it could mean for your life,” she said.
Fleming described a cyclical effect: low-income black students receive below-average elementary and secondary education and are therefore underprepared for college, which they financed with large personal loans; and, according to his research, are more likely to drop out of college than their white counterparts – but are still required to pay their student loan debt.
“There is no doubt that one of the things that contributes to the low income levels of black people in this country is the fact that they have this debt hanging over their heads,” she said. “That’s the thing that bothers me more than anything else – for an 18-year-old to get an unsecured loan without really understanding what it means.”
Fleming said he believes the easiest way to deal with debt for young Black Americans is to institute loan forgiveness — or create a post-secondary education system where that debt doesn’t exist.
“President Obama has said he thinks the first two years of community college should be free, and I agree,” she said. “The government really needs to find a way to get people out from under [the burden of debt] because it sinks the economy – no one is smart about it.
In the long term, however, Fleming said the best course of action is for federal and state governments to invest in low-income school districts. Understanding that more resources are needed to do this, she suggested a simple solution: divert money from prisons to schools.
“We spend so much money incarcerating people for drug offences. It is very expensive to keep someone in prison,” she said. “We can spend this money on schools.”
She added that this method would have the advantage of not diverting revenue from school districts that are already adequately funded.
“You don’t have to take it from suburban schools and institutions,” she said. “Let them keep everything they have – because they’re not going to give it up anyway.”
“In Desperate Search for a Higher Education Among the Ruins of Great Society”, vol. I, is available now at silvermaplepublications.com. Flight. It should be out later this month.