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: 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.
Thus far, the dialogue has been more like a critical monologue, a consistent indictment of Black masculinity, regular exchanges of confused Black gloom and male doom, a gushing river of what Harper terms “deficit-oriented questions.”
In an effort to move toward a more constructive dialogue, the report asked new, anti-deficit questions. “What resources are most effective in helping Black male achievers earn GPAs above 3.0 in a variety of majors, including STEM fields?” This is one of many questions that UPenn researchers asked 219 successful Black male college students at 42 colleges and universities in 20 states in their study to gauge how and why they have defied the odds, or rather lived up to the odds they set for themselves.
When I read through the key findings of the study, I was struck by the simplicity of the reasons these Black men offered as to why they have succeeded in college. I was struck by how much my story was in their words. I was struck by how their story, my story, could be the story of each Black male who has not proceeded to college.
The participants’ parents deemed college a “non-negotiable” expectation after high school, were involved in their schooling and “aggressively sought out educational resources to ensure their success.” I can certainly remember this from my parents.
They “almost always” had at least one influential teacher who inspired them to go to college. I did not have a teacher, but I had a Black male guidance counselor, Mr. Lawrence. (Like I did, most considered themselves “lucky” to have this support. “Many participants felt teachers [especially White women] were incapable of engaging meaningfully with more than one or a few Black male students at a time.”)
Many respondents mentioned programs that offered early exposure or a bridge to higher education as a tremendous preparatory asset. My International Baccalaureate courses in high school were a necessary component to my college success.
The men reported that family members were more helpful in searching for and choosing a college than White guidance counselors, who were usually harmful with their demeaning advice and personal penchants for Black or White colleges. Some students chose top HBCUs, such as Morehouse and Howard, over top HWCUs like Princeton and Stanford, to the chagrin of counselors.
Most of the achievers attributed their college success to not being burdened with financial strain and stress, getting off to a good academic start, and having upperclassmen mentors to guide them through the college process. And, they were all engaged student leaders on their campuses. “The men believed they earned higher grades because they had less time to waste, interacted frequently with academically-driven others, and had reputations to uphold.”
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 through…questioning their misconceptions,” and they found solace and strength in Black student organizations and spaces.
The blueprint for Black male college success has already been written, is being written by the thousands of Black male students each year. The plan is simple—involved, knowledgeable, dedicated parents, teachers, and counselors with high expectations, pre-college and transitional programming, unburdening them financially, and providing college mentors and strong Black student organizations.
The blueprint is easily readable, is easily understandable. However, implementing them can be a complex, straining process in our world where the simple good for Black men is a societal complexity. But its complexity makes it difficult, not impossible. These 219 male students are a microcosm of the possible. Their ideas in this study give us a consciousness of possibility that allows us to regain our hope and de-normalize Black male academic underachievement.
When I compared their experiences with mine, saw the similarities, realized the possibility of repetition, my spirit was renewed. One respondent said he was lucky to have been given the opportunities to succeed—the parents, teachers, programs, mentors, organizations. I was lucky, too. The key is to make every Black male lucky, to give every Black male the known key to success, and stop blaming that keyless Black male for not opening the door of college success.
Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).