While a panel discussion held by The College Board on Capitol Hill this week was meant to highlight a new report on the lagging rates of educational attainment among non-White men, some of the panelists questioned the need for more research on the subject.
“How much data do we need?” asked panelist Dr. Roy Jones, executive director for the Eugene T. Moore School of Education’s Call Me MISTER Program at Clemson University. (MISTER is an acronym for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role-models).
His remarks came after a discussion of the new report titled “The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color: A Review of Research, Pathways and Progress,” co-authored by John Michael Lee Jr., a co-panelist and policy director at the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center.
Among other things, the report delineates the current landscape and projections of degree attainment among minorities in the United States, making note of the fact that, while minorities will collectively rival Whites in numbers in 2019, degree attainment among minorities, with the exception of Asians, trails significantly behind that of Whites. For instance, while 41.6 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. had attained an associate’s degree or higher as of 2008, the rate was 30.3 and 19.8 percent for African-Americans and Latinos, respectively, versus 49 percent for Whites and 70.7 percent for Asians. The report was released with two companion reports that reflect student voices on the issues as well as the federal legal implications.
“I love John’s stuff,” Jones said of Lee’s report. “But we need to apply some of John’s stuff tomorrow.”
“We know all there is to know,” Jones continued. “It’s really the will to act.”
Lee, a co-panelist, responded with a little verbal one-upmanship regarding the need for action, saying, “We need to ask what we can do today.”
Such scenes were not at all uncommon at the panel discussion, also titled “The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color.”
The event began with a DVD that featured “startling” statistics about how “our young men of color are falling behind in degree attainment,” accompanied by sad violin music and images of the men from the population in question.
But at the outset of the event, U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Illinois) shared his father’s cautionary advice about spending too much time on problems.
“He said problems are like babies,” Davis said. “If you nurse them, they grow.”
The event was rife with awkward and occasionally tense moments where speakers and audience members evoked a wide range of emotional responses—including glares and groans—with impromptu thoughts about why precisely it is that men of color, as they are called in the report, don’t collectively hold the same proportion of college degrees as White men.
For instance, after several speakers sought to impute blame for the problem on racism and what is often described as America’s “school to prison pipeline,” many in the audience groaned when Lee said, if men of color didn’t commit crimes, their incarceration rates would not be what they are.
One of the most evocative statements came from panelist Kadeem Palmer, a young Prince George’s Community College student.
When panel moderator Bob Suzuki, President Emeritus at Cal Poly Pomona, asked panelists to identify the major challenge facing members of their particular ethnic group, Palmer quickly raised his hand and took the first crack at the question.
“The biggest challenge in the classroom, in my area, is the African-American males themselves, which actually keeps us down,” Palmer said, relating a longstanding complaint that too often among African-American men, those who get a college education are seen as “Uncle Toms or betraying ourselves if we try to move on.”
That statement drew an uneasy agreement from Jones, of Clemson.
“I’m always hesitant to blame the victim for some of these issues,” Jones said. “But that’s one of the problems we face.”
Though some of the most tense moments came during discussion of the educational plight of Black males, Tuesday’s discussion included thoughts on issues that confront Latino, Native American and Asian men as well.
Dr. Robert Teranishi, Associate Professor of Higher Education at New York University, said the notion of Asians being a “model minority” overshadows many problems that exist for Asians in higher education, including lagging college completion rates among Southeast Asians.
“The ‘model minority’ is similar to other attempts to pit one minority against another,” Teranishi said, using a term that Suzuki himself popularized in groundbreaking research on the subject in the 1970s. “It’s not only problematic but counterproductive in higher education for our nation as a whole.”
Dr. Victor Saenz, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at the University of Texas at Austin, said, “In short, it has become big business to incarcerate Black and Brown men.”
He said the problem manifests itself early in the educational experience of minority males, “in ways and policies like zero tolerance laws that have seeped into our schools across the country, that have turned an otherwise innocuous incident into something that can escalate for our Black and Brown young men to a (juvenile hall) and later to the prison system.”
LeManuel Bistoi, program director at Minority Action Plan within the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, said Native Americans continue to struggle to take control of their educational destinies within the framework of Western education.
“A lot of this history is a history of mistrust with the federal government, experiencing change, empowering Native communities to take ownership for education systems to bring about change,” Bistoi said. He said an ongoing challenge is for Native Americans to “look at what they can do within Western education so that it complements cultural education,” particularly as it relates to Native American practices and customs in medicine and artisanship.
One of the most humorous yet serious moments came when Suzuki asked panelists what they’d change to enhance degree attainment among minority males.
“I wouldn’t have to pay for college,” Kadeem Palmer said, evoking laughter. “It’d be free.”
He elaborated: “It’s finances. It’s one of the main reasons people can’t go to college. A lot of people can’t pursue their dreams because they can’t afford it.”
Raymund Paredes, Commissioner of Higher Education at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said it’s important to help young people to even have dreams.
“The kids who have big dreams typically don’t get into trouble,” Paredes said. “It’s young people that don’t have dreams who get into trouble.”
Paredes lauded various model programs highlighted in The College Board’s report that show that the issues that lead to lagging rates of educational attainment among men of color are not insurmountable.
He also blasted universities that produce large numbers of teachers without ensuring that the teachers are culturally competent when they step into a classroom.
“Most teachers come from universities with Latino, African-American and Native American studies departments,” Paredes said. “But talk to the deans of the schools that produce teachers that are not culturally sensitive: ‘Do you work with these centers?’ The answer is typically ‘No.’
“That’s something that’s easy to fix,” he added.
While several speakers questioned the need for more data on the subject of educational attainment among men of color, Paredes said a need exists for more data that show what kind of progress institutions are making in this regard. He suggested easing the transition from two- to four-year colleges and such policy changes as tying higher education funding to graduation rates.
“We need to demand data where breaks are in the educational pipeline,” Paredes said. “We don’t know how well institutions do. We have a lot of colleges, four-year institutions and universities in this country that have dropout rates of 40, 50, 60, 70 percent. We need to make sure we have data and hold these institutions accountable.”