Where the Boys Aren’t The decline of Black males in colleges and universities has sociologists and educators concerned about the future of the African American community
By David Hefner
When sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote these words more than 100 years ago, life in America was infinitely different for Blacks. For all its evils, segregation offered the sobering reality to Blacks that progress occurred when they themselves fought for it. And Black men, at the turn of the 20th century, upheld the sometimes deadly responsibility of being provider and protector of a community that was often exposed to danger.
Education, many believed then, was not only worth dying for, but was the Golden Fleece that best combated the vestiges of enslavement. By the 20th century, fueled by the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, several colleges for African Americans were established to grant Blacks what had been denied them for so long — the right to know.
Today, as the country celebrates the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the case that ended legal segregation in American public schools, young Black men are, by most social indicators, unraveling at the seams. More are being incarcerated, more are rejecting fatherhood, more are dropping out of high school and fewer are going to college. And, in nearly half of Black households today, the responsibility of provider and protector has shifted to Black women.
Education in the African American community was once viewed as the key to living the “American dream.” It’s now viewed by many young Black males as an unnecessary barrier that stands between them and making fast money.
It is against the backdrop of the Brown anniversary, as well as Black Issues’ 20th anniversary, that we examine how Black men have fared in higher education over the last two decades. In short, the state of Black males is disturbing. The decline of Black men enrolling in institutions of higher education has both sociologists and educators concerned. Du Bois, they say, had it right in 1903: Education is still an important indicator for future social success or failure.
“Economically, this damages the economic standing of Black men,” says Dr. Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Princeton University who studies criminal justice and education policy with the Justice Policy Institute in Washington.
A “college education has insulated, to some degree, male workers from declining real wages. As the education level of Black men falls in relation to the rest of the labor force, their economic position will also deteriorate,” Western says. “This also has all sorts of secondary effects. The marriage market for Black women will not be so appealing because there will be relatively few partners with a college education, for example.”
Dr. Obie Clayton, chair of the sociology department at Morehouse College, the nation’s only historically Black all-male private school, agrees.
“Black women are delaying marriage because Black men are not marriageable,” says Clayton, director of the Morehouse Research Institute for the Study of African American Men. “These low marriage rates will continue and more babies will be raised in single families regardless of economic circumstance. … The family will suffer in terms of median household income. … And education is one of the biggest indicators of health status. …We’re seeing increases in suicide rates in Black men, increases in drug use in older Black men, and mental illness among Black men is on the rise.”
‘Feminization’ of the academy
In almost every academic category, the 20-year growth rate of Black men in higher education is extraordinarily slow when compared with other groups, particularly their female counterparts. That doesn’t mean that the actual number of Black men enrolling and graduating from college has decreased over the last 20 years, but it does mean that the rate of growth over that time period is so sluggish that other groups are becoming far more educated relative to the population.
To be clear, women, regardless of race, are outstripping men in college enrollment and graduation. Some academics are calling this trend the “feminization” of the academy. But Black women in particular are enrolling and graduating from college at nearly double the rate of Black men, a disparity that does not exist among any other minority group.
The growth rate of Black men enrolling in college is the lowest among minority groups in the nation, according to the American Council on Education’s “Minorities in Higher Education Annual Status Report.”
Between 1980 and 2000, the number of Black men who enrolled in college in the fall semester grew by 37 percent — climbing from 464,000 in 1980 to 635,000 in 2000. For Black women, however, the number grew by 70 percent — climbing from 643,000 to 1.1 million in 2000. That means there were roughly 450,000 more Black women enrolling in college in 2000 than Black men.
This wide of a disparity was not found in any other minority group, according to ACE’s annual report. Not only was the rate of enrollment growth among Asian and Hispanic men and women significantly robust over the last 20 years, but their relative numbers also were closer. In fall 2000, 627,000 Hispanic men enrolled in college, compared to 835,000 Hispanic women — a difference of a little more than 200,000. For Asian men and women, the numbers were 466,000 and 512,000 respectively, a difference of less than 50,000.
Equally alarming was the actual number of Black men graduating from college over the last 20 years. In 1980, according to the ACE report, 24,511 Black men earned bachelor’s degrees, compared to 36,162 Black women — a difference of 11,651. By 2000, that gap more than tripled when only 38,103 Black men earned four-year degrees compared to 73,204 Black women. Nearly 70 percent of Black students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2000 were women.
“We have to be concerned about what this mean in terms of the traditional social patterns for African American men and women,” says Dr. William B. Harvey, vice president and director of ACE’s Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity and author of ACE’s annual status report.
“We should all be concerned if we want a stable society and stable communities,” Harvey says. “We certainly don’t want continued instability in our community where people are not able to take care of themselves and their families. We should all be concerned because if this trend continues, then it will ultimately affect the health and well being of the American society.”
Reconnecting Black Males
In April 2001, Morehouse College held a two-day symposium titled “Reconnecting Males to Liberal Education: A National Symposium on Higher Education’s Shifting Gender Balance.” The event was sponsored by the college’s Research Institute for the Study of African American Men.
“As the nation’s only historically Black, all-male institution, we feel we have a special obligation to and direct interest in all issues concerning Black males in higher education,” said Morehouse’s president Dr. Walter Massey of the symposium. “Our long-range objectives were to stimulate national awareness of the problem of the relative decline in enrollment of Black males in higher education, and to motivate the scholarly and policy communities to focus more research on this problem, hopefully leading to new national policies.”
In Georgia, where Morehouse is located, the symposium appears to have gotten the attention of some educators. A recent state board of regents task force on Black male education found that less than 2 percent of the students at the state’s main research institution, the University of Georgia, were Black men. This is in a state where they make up roughly 17 percent of public school enrollment, according to a paper co-authored by Morehouse’s Clayton.
Clayton says the causes for the relative decline in Black men in higher education are multifaceted, but many relate back to high school. Among the causes are:
• The type of academic and career counseling Black males receive in high school;
• The expectations high school teachers, counselors, parents and other adults have of them;
• Lack of exposure to college-preparatory curriculum;
• The preparation of their teachers;
• Their family’s financial standing;
• Their self-identity and overall attitude toward education and scholarship; and
• Their assessment of jobs and pay available with a high school degree or less, in comparison to a college degree.
“The low representation of Black men obtaining college degrees, in particular, is fueled by disparities in the number of Black male youth who graduate from high school, take college-preparatory courses, score adequately on achievement tests, and have the financial wherewithal to attend college,” Clayton and co-authors Cynthia Hewitt and Eddie Gaffney wrote in their paper.
“Overwhelmingly, the K-12 school system is failing to impart to Black male youth the skills and aspirations necessary to enter, persist and obtain higher education degrees,” wrote the authors.
A huge part of that failure, many believe, is the fact that increasingly Black boys in public schools are being taught by White female teachers who are more likely to label them discipline problems. Conversely, there are fewer Black male teachers in public schools, they say.
Harvey, of ACE, also points to the rising cost of college and the decline of federal aid as reasons why Black men are not attending college in larger numbers.
“For those in the lower economic category, the availability of financial aid determines who gets to go to college and who doesn’t,” Harvey said in a previous report.
Another popular theory for why fewer Black men are enrolling in college is the emergence of crack cocaine in Black communities in the late ’80s and early ’90s and the increased incarceration rates of Black males that followed.
“If you look back to the mid-80s when crack cocaine emerged, you begin to see a big increase in incarceration,” Clayton says. “So the war on drugs is part of the reason (for the decline). And one thing that happens, and a lot of people don’t know, that if you’ve been convicted of a drug offense, you don’t qualify for financial aid.”
Reversing the Trend
In April, Harvey attended a workshop sponsored by the NAACP that analyzed the relative progress of the American educational system 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education. Harvey led a workshop on minorities in higher education.
It’s discussions like this, Harvey says, with community-based organizations like the NAACP that will help reverse the sluggish 20-year trend of Black men in higher education.
“What we have to do is really support our community organizations like the NAACP and the churches in our communities,” Harvey says. “We have to help those institutions supplement the message that academic achievement is important. That message starts at home, but that message has to come from several different sources.”
Clayton says more work has to be done at the elementary level in order to captivate the attention of Black boys at an early age. Morehouse’s institute, for example, has provided after-school tutoring for the last nine years.
“What we really need to do is work with inner-city scholars and work with the kids when they’re in kindergarten,” he says.
As for Princeton’s Western:
“We need to figure out if Black male high school students value academic achievement less than other groups, and why this is happening. We need to find a way to control higher education costs, to make college more accessible, not just for Black men, but for all disadvantaged groups.”
— David Hefner has been a Black Issues correspondent since 2001. A 1993 graduate of Morehouse College, David is currently the publications manager at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com