University of Pennsylvania Program Seeks To Boost Enrollment of Black Men In Ph.D. Programs

When Malcolm Marshall and several other Black and Latino students were sent letters excluding them from a Harvard University information session at their public high school in Georgia, Marshall’s outraged mother called the university. Recruiters assured her that it was not their policy to exclude students and that all those who had been banned from attending were allowed to join in. Marshall, now a junior at Rutgers University, remembers the vice principal of his high school telling him, “It’s so hard to get in. You probably won’t get in anyway.”

Marshall credits his mother for helping him reach his educational goals, saying she never took no for an answer. He is now in the process of applying to graduate programs in education, with the goal of promoting access to higher education for students of all backgrounds. He hopes to work as a college administrator or in the U.S. Department of Education.

“I guess I was always preoccupied with that burning question: Why was I more successful than some of my … peers in school that look like me and came from similar backgrounds?” he says.

While surfing the Web, Marshall came across an initiative that is probing that same issue. Dr. Shaun Harper, a professor of higher education, Africana studies and gender studies at the University of Pennsylvania, launched the Grad Prep Academy in 2009 to create a pipeline of Black males for graduate programs in education. Marshall applied to the Academy and is now part of its second class. The initiative prepares eight to 10 Black men every year to enter master’s and/or doctorate programs in education by providing funding for a GRE class, mentorship, and guidance through the admissions process.

“I don’t want to just be a researcher who researches Black male access and equity,” Harper says. “I want to actually contribute to increasing access and moving us closer to equitable outcomes, equitable participation rates and so on.”

Black male enrollment in doctoral programs is alarmingly low, says Harper. Just 2.1 percent of doctorates were awarded to Black men in 2007. With the help of Dr. Andrew Porter, dean of Penn’s education school, Harper has gotten the project up and running.

“We see this as a multi-pronged response to an important education problem,” Harper says. “I was bothered by the dismal participation rates in graduate schools.”

A dean from the University of Maryland expressed interest in replicating the project’s model, and Harper says he has gotten resounding support from his peers and the university. All marketing has been done through e-mail, Twitter and Facebook, which has brought in more than 350 applications for the 18 spots he has filled thus far.

Supported by the Provost’s Diversity Fund at the university, scholars also benefit from an all-expenses-paid trip to the Philadelphia campus. Demetri Morgan, a University of Florida senior and a member of Grad Prep’s first class, says the trip helped him build relationships with academics.

“If he can create this network and grow it every year, by the time we are professors and administrators we’ll have strong connections across the country,” Morgan says. “It really advances the educational agenda and actually gets things done.”

Harper says he hopes to use the Academy to create a fraternal network of Black education researchers and leaders. Each class, he hopes, will mentor the next. Mauriell Amechi, also a member of the first Grad Prep class, says he’s excited to work with the next group of Academy students.

“I thought that it would be a good resource for me as an African-American male who has aspirations to become an educational researcher,” says the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign senior.

Amechi has now been admitted to three master’s programs and is waiting to hear back about doctoral program admissions. When he becomes a professor, he plans to study access to higher education with regard to all underrepresented minorities.

“I know for a fact that it was my ACT score that held me back,” Amechi says. If it were not for his ACT score, he says he would have been admitted to UI’s business school.

It’s a common problem that Harper has seen first-hand as a professor: students who have a great deal of potential but not the right score.

“If you put your thumb on their GRE scores, everything else about them would have rendered them undeniably admissible,” he says.

While Harper says he would love to have all the Academy scholars attend Penn’s Graduate School of Education, he’s realistic that the 18 students will choose the best programs for themselves, fanning out across the country.

“We all feel extremely responsible to turn around and give back to our communities,” Morgan says.