Our dedication to Racial Equality and Social Justice (RESJ) spans decades. Learn more about our RESJ Initiative

time exposed photo of headlights in urban center

African American Males in Higher Education

            African American male’s troubled status in higher education has garnered tremendous attention at national conferences, in the media, and in published scholarship over the past 20 years. As researchers make the complexities of the problem increasingly clear, educators, administrators, and policymakers alike have grappled with the question of what must be done to improve African American male student success.

            Most of us are familiar with the often quoted statement that “there are more black men in prison than in or colleges and universities.” For nearly a decade, this statement has been popular with those attempting to dramatize the plight of African American males. Although today it is factually inaccurate, there are far too many African American males in prison and not enough in college. Understanding the College experience that motivate students to achieve academic and personal goals is important, especially for African American males whose college retention and completion rates are lower than those of other ethnic groups, and also lower than those of their female counterparts (1).

            Recently, the issue of the dearth of African American males in colleges was resurrected when a group of students at UCLA produced a video that lambasted the University for its Miniscule African American Student Population. It was entitled “UCLA has more championships that Black male freshman” and it sent everyone scurrying to their research offices to document their African American male enrollment. These students, who are African American, sent a strong message about the lack of diversity at their school. This is a problem not only for UCLA but for most of this nation’s elite institutions. According to the school’s enrollment statistics, African Americans make up 3.8 percent of the student population. In the video, it was pointed out that African American males make up 3.3 percent of the male student population, and that 65 percent of those African American males are undergraduate athletes. Of the incoming men in the freshmen class, only 1.9 percent of them were African American(2). A similar statistic can be found at many other colleges and universities in the United States.

            As the racial demography of the U.S. changes, researchers have been more intentional about exploring the experiences, challenges, and success factors for groups of color underrepresented in the educational pipeline. Indeed, while certain groups, such as African American women, have made significant strides in their pursuit of a postsecondary education, African American men account for 4.3% of the total enrollment at 4-year postsecondary institutions in the United States, which is the same percentage enrolled in 1976. Given the stagnation of African American male enrollment in higher education, scholars have worked tirelessly to produce critical information to help educators, policymakers, and stakeholders increase the success of African American males in K-12 and higher education. Such is the aim of T. Elon Dancy and M. Christopher Brown’s edited volume, African American Males and Education: Researching the Convergence of Race and Identity (3).

            The enrollment crisis is just one of a seemingly litany of higher education issues for the African American male student. Retention and degree completion rates are dismal and contribute to the higher education crisis for African American males. I have been concerned about African American male college success since I was a student in the late 1970’s. I spent almost 30 years at a HBCU, where I mentored African American males. There are those that would have you believe that these students enroll at a HBCU because it’s their last option. Many of these students attend HBCUs for the longstanding reputations of HCBUs for providing supportive educational environments to black students. Knowledge of these institutions was passed on to them by parents and family members. There are lessons to be learned from the experience of attending an HCBU that can be applied to those universities, like UCLA, that are having difficulty recruiting and retaining African American students.

            It is time to change the narrative as it relates to African American males in higher education today. A sustained and collaborative effort aimed at empowering the African American male is needed. The African American community faces many problems, and with many African American men not enrolling in traditional colleges, this limits the potential of these men to transform life. The consequence of low African American enrollment in college is decreased economic, political, social, and cultural capacity to improve the lives of all the world’s citizens.

            The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania recently released its inaugural publication. Titled Black Male Student Success in Higher Education: Black Male Student Success in Higher Education: A Report from the National Black Male College Achievement Study, researchers, led by the center’s director, Dr. Shaun R. Harper, have attempted to reframe the spirited dialogue concerning the achievement of African-American males (4).

            The statements uttered by the African American males in the UCLA video are consistent with the findings that Harper founded when he interviewed African American students who attended Historically White Colleges and Universities (HWCUs). The participants who attended HWCUs informed interviewers that they were regularly subjected to racism: White peers picked them last for group projects, professors showed surprise when they scored well, questions were regularly hurled about what sports they played, assumptions circulated that they were underachieving affirmative action entries, they knew where to purchase marijuana, and they grew up in urban, fatherless homes. To defend and invigorate their being in the face of the debilitating racism, many became adept at “simultaneously embarrassing and educating their peers though…questioning their misconceptions,” and they found solace and strength in Black student organizations and spaces.

            My experience in higher education has given me the opportunity to see the development of hundreds of African American male students. These students wrote the blueprint for success, and it is consistent with the findings of so much of the research today. The success of any student involves having parents and a supportive family system that has education as an essential component of life success. Place these students in an academic environment with dedicated teachers and counselors with high expectations for African American males and you are well on your way to creating a foundation for a successful outcome. Add in Add in some pre-college and transitional programming, give them some financial assistance t unburden them financially, provide college mentoring and create a supportive on-campus environment that speaks to their cultural heritage and you have all the ingredients for the blueprint for success.

            But success is getting more of these men out of high school and into college could be pointless if we do not also ensure that they transition smoothly from high school and then, once in college, learn much, accrue important developmental gains, benefit from institutional resources, and ultimately persist through baccalaureate degree attainment. Unfortunately, though, many of the problems that plague these students in K-12 schools also follow them into higher education.

            In conclusion, I am encouraged by the work of these scholars who are addressing success and aspirations for African American male students. There is much work to be done but we can significantly impact their educational attainment by encouraging and helping teachers to believe in the intellectual potential of their students, especially African American males. The research identified in this report points to the fact that by identifying student strengths and providing enriching learning options, those strengths surface and are leading to higher levels of achievements.