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Perspectives: Black Males In the Educational Pipeline

In 2008, Americans are at the precipice of a monumental historical moment- the Democratic Party will nominate Sen. Barack Obama as a candidate for President of the United States. Regardless of the outcome of the November election, Senator Obama’s ascent to the highest political office in the land is a victory for civil rights, and specifically, a crowning glory for Black male achievement.

Along with this demonstration of progress, however, we should be vigilant. The opponents of progressive pubic policy will point to Senator Obama’s individual success and attempt to weave a narrative that racism is dead. That is why at this historic juncture, it is imperative that educators, policy analysts, and the public at large pay close attention to the status of members of Senator Obama’s demographic group — Black males — in the arena that perhaps best correlates to improved life opportunities: the educational pipeline.

As educational researchers who are also Black males, we have personally and objectively observed evidence that the educational pipeline for young men of color is leaking rapidly. From witnessing our declining representation in high school honors courses, to college, and on to graduate school, we are used to being in a small minority. We are also accustomed to being stereotyped, our credentials and positions are often questioned, even in academic settings. In many ways, however, we are the fortunate ones in comparison to the sizable numbers of young Black males who are poorly served by our educational system.

The most current numbers on young Black males’ educational outcomes are dire. Though the disparity between racial groups (i.e., Blacks and Whites) regarding graduation rates has narrowed since the 1970s, notable gaps remain. Data from the 2007 U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Survey presents a snapshot of high school graduation rates by race. Nationally, the percentage of males in the 18-24 year cohort with a high school diploma or greater is 77 percent. When disaggregated by race, however, the disparities become readily apparent. While Asian American and White males in the 18-24 year cohort report educational attainment of a high school diploma or greater at 85 percent and 81 percent respectively, Black males report a rate of 73 percent.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data on high school dropout rates also reveals disparities along racial lines. The national dropout rate in 2005 was at 11 percent among the male 16 to 24 year old cohort of all races. However, only 7 percent of White males in this group were dropouts. Men of color fared far worse: 12 percent of young Black males were dropouts, as were 26 percent of young Hispanic males in the same age cohort.

Notably, there is a growing sentiment that NCES and U.S. Census data are severely over-reporting graduation rates and underreporting dropout rates. Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute reports that 48 percent of Black males are graduating. This contrasts with U.S. Census data that suggests 73 percent of Black males earned diplomas (a difference of 25 percentage points). Similarly, former U.S. Secretary of State General Colin Powell’s America’s Promise Alliance recently released a study that reported a national graduation rate for Blacks of 53 percent. Recent research studies conducted by Julian Vasquez Heilig utilize a more statistically accurate cohort counting method and found graduation rates for urban Black students around 40 percent. These numbers would locate the dropout rate closer to 50 percent for Black males as compared to the 12 percent publicly reported by NCES. Clearly, the most recent research literature is finding the publicly released government data is not adequately measuring the severity of the educational crisis for young Black males.

Regardless of the source of the research data on dropout and graduation, the state of the Black males in U.S. K-12 schools is disturbing. Therefore, it should logically follow that college enrollment and degree attainment would be an issue of concern for Black males. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that at 2.5 million and growing, Texas has the third largest population of Blacks in the United States, trailing only California and New York. By utilizing data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, it is possible to examine the most recent data on the enrollment gap in higher education by ethnicity for first-time and bachelors-seeking freshmen in public institutions in Texas since 2000. Notably, overall enrollment has risen for Blacks. However, Black enrollment gains have occurred at smaller, less-selective public universities and have not occurred at The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M — the flagship educational institutions of the state.

The disparity in national degree attainment between Black and White males is quite disconcerting. In 2003, Black males comprised 4 percent of associate degrees, 3 percent of bachelor’s degrees, and about 2 percent of master’s degrees and doctoral degrees. In comparison, White males comprised 28 percent of associate degrees, 32 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 26 percent of master’s degrees, and 29 percent of doctoral degrees. As a result, in 2005, educational researcher Shaun Harper found on average, at all levels, White males earn 10 times the number of degrees than Black males.

Even this cursory survey of data on Black males and their educational outcomes provides a vivid reality of separate and unequal experiences for Black males. Although aggressive, forward thinking interventions like affirmative action are under attack, the need for public awareness and policy targeted to close the persisting and escalating gaps in educational attainment and life outcomes of young Black males is necessary now, more than ever. With the spectacular success of Senator Obama, some will attempt to manipulate public consciousness toward a post-civil rights, colorblind discourse that sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant have warned us of for many years — which ignores the copious levels of racial disparity evidenced by educational research. By remaining fastidious and working to eradicate these disheartening disparities, ultimately our national union will benefit.

Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig is an assistant professor of educational policy at The University of Texas at Austin.  Dr. Richard J. Reddick is an assistant professor of higher education at The University of Texas at Austin.


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