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Seeking Out Success

Seeking Out Success

By Ronald Roach

University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Shaun Harper expects his extensive research will create a new paradigm of how Black males adapt and
succeed in college.

It was in his high school years that Raymond Roy seriously thought about going to college. Raised largely by his grandmother in a tough, low-income neighborhood in north Philadelphia, Roy found encouragement from family members and a few college-bound friends.  

“I had good grades, but I didn’t think college was something I could do until I saw some of my friends going for it,” he says.

Roy’s college pursuit took him to Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania where he made the Dean’s List his freshman year. Identified in the spring of his freshman year by campus administrators as a motivated high achiever, Roy took part in the National Black Male College Achievement Study, the largest-ever empirical study of Black male undergraduates.

Roy is one of 219 young Black men from around the nation who have participated in what the study’s author, Dr. Shaun R. Harper, an assistant professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, hopes will create a new paradigm of how Black males adapt and succeed in college.  

Partly launched when he was a Ph.D. student at Indiana University several years ago, Harper later completed the bulk of the survey work from early 2005 to summer 2006. Traveling each week while teaching courses at Pennsylvania State University, Harper conducted two- to three-hour individual interviews with most of the 219 students on their respective campuses. The subjects were enrolled in 42 colleges and universities in 20 states. The respective schools fall into six categories, including historically Black public institutions, historically Black private institutions and highly selective, private research universities. 

“I was pleased to be part of Dr. Harper’s study because it meant that my story can be helpful to someone else,” says Roy, now a junior at Lock Haven.

In contrast to Roy, Ruben Alexander of Decatur, Ga., benefited from the guidance of two college-educated parents who constantly urged him to do his best at all times as a student. Alexander believes the relentless focus on excellence instilled in him by his parents helped make it possible for him to graduate as valedictorian of the Morehouse College class of 2007 with a 4.0 GPA. 

Currently a first-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, Alexander feels confident that he has the experience and high academic skills to do well in medical school.

“I was fortunate to have the drive for excellence instilled in me and I hope my experience can be a valuable perspective in Dr. Harper’s research,” Alexander says.

Harper believes that the stories of young men such as Roy and Alexander are critical to helping craft effective strategies to improve Black male success in college. According to the researcher, some 67.6 percent of Black male students who begin college never complete their degrees. Black males have the worst college attrition rate among both sexes and all racial/ethnic groups in higher education, Harper says.

“Black men comprised only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled at American institutions of higher education, the exact same percentage as in 1976. Literally, no progress has been made in increasing participation rates among this population in over a quarter of a century,” he has written.  

Answers to solving low Black male college enrollment and completion rates, Harper believes, lie largely in the research he has compiled. Currently working through some 4,500 pages of interview material and data, he is writing both a 40-page report and a book, which should yield strategies that are informed by the experiences of successful male students.

“It’s been pretty well documented that Black male students — in particular at all levels of schooling — are the population for whom teachers, administrators and others tend to hold the lowest expectations. I’ve long felt that no student rises to low expectations. In many ways, the guys in this national study have exceeded the low expectations that have been set for Black males,” Harper says.
Harper’s work with the Black male investigation won an important endorsement from the Lumina Foundation. This past summer, the Indianapolis-based education foundation approved a $649,200 grant to fund distribution in February 2008 of the 40-page report Harper is producing from the study’s data. The grant will also fund implementation of study recommendations at six campuses over a three-year period. The participating campuses will be chosen from among those that submit proposals.

“What we really need to know now more than ever before is what is it that successful African-American male students do, what kind of backgrounds do they come from, and what were their pre-college experiences. Are there specific things that institutions do to help their students succeed?” says Dr. George D. Kuh, the Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education and the director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.

“My suspicion is that what works for African-American male students in terms of the kinds of support structures, early warning systems, and college bridge programs will work for all students,” adds Kuh, one of Harper’s former professors.

“He’s examining African-American males in terms of high achievement rather than in terms of failure, which is the more typical approach,” says Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon, a professor of higher education and the director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California.

In addition to winning the Lumina Foundation’s support for the Black male study, Harper’s career has taken a recent turn with a move this past summer to the University of Pennsylvania. At Penn, Harper joins a cadre of influential higher education research scholars that includes Drs. Laura Perna and Marybeth Gasman.

Although he is best known among education scholars as an expert on Black males in higher education, Harper examines “race and gender in higher education; innovative approaches to retaining racial/ethnic minority students; the effects of college environments on student behaviors and outcomes; student affairs at historically Black colleges and universities; and the gains associated with purposeful student engagement, both inside and outside of the classroom.” One of the strengths Harper brings to his research is experience in student affairs and program administration. While a graduate student at Indiana University, Harper held administrative jobs, including assistant director of admissions for IU’s Kelley School of Business MBA Program.

Since earning a Ph.D. in higher education administration in 2003 from Indiana University, Harper has further demonstrated proficiency as an administrator, teacher and researcher. From 2003 to 2005, he served as the executive director of the Doctor of Education program at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. Also serving as a professor in the doctoral program, Harper won the Rossier School of Education Socrates Professor of the Year Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2004. 

“He came to USC primarily to direct a new program — a doctorate in education. Shaun was highly influential in shaping the program and making it very successful,” Bensimon notes.

Harper has arrived at the University of Pennsylvania at a time when attention and focus on improving Black male achievement is gaining increasing prominence in the national news media and at predominantly White college and university campuses. The focus has stirred some controversy as affirmative action opponents decry what they claim as discriminatory policies being developed to improve Black male achievement. One university system, the City University of New York (CUNY), has defended its Black Male Initiative after a complaint was filed in opposition to the initiative with the U.S. Department of Education in 2006.

Last year, Harper authored “Black Male Students at Public Flagship Universities in the U.S.: Status, Trends, and Implications for Policy and Practice,” a report written for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ Dellums Commission. The report, which analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and other sources, reported that while Black men comprised 7.9 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. population in 2000, they made up only 2.8 percent of undergraduate enrollments across the 50 flagship universities in 2004.

The conclusions “confirm that higher education is a public good that benefits far too few Black men in America,” Harper says. 

Harper and others have criticized elite institutions for touting the value of diversity but not doing much to recruit and help Black males be a viable component of campus diversity. In the report, Harper urged the use of affirmative action in admissions to help boost the number of African-American men at public flagship universities. He also urges public institutions as well as state and federal policymakers to increase financial support of college-readiness programs. In addition, “funds should be allocated to create access improvement programs specifically for Black male students,” according to the report.

“Institutions’ of higher education have a rhetoric about diversity. They care about diversity, and they put diversity in their materials. But what’s important about (Harper’s) work is that it’s not about diversity as such. It’s not about how the presence of African-American males is going to benefit other students. It’s basically about how to be more mindful of the success of the student who makes diversity possible.”


Public Research Universities*
1. University of Illinois
2. Indiana University
3. University of Michigan
4. Michigan State University
5. The Ohio State University
6. Purdue University

Highly-Selective Private Research Universities
1. Brown University
2. Columbia University
3. Harvard University
4. University of Pennsylvania
5. Princeton University
6. Stanford University

Private Historically Black Universities
1. Clark Atlanta University
2. Fisk University
3. Hampton University
4. Howard University
5. Morehouse College
6. Tuskegee University

Public Historically Black Universities
1. Albany State University
2. Cheyney University
3. Florida A&M University
4. Norfolk State University
5. North Carolina Central University
6. Tennessee State University

Liberal Arts Colleges
1.  Amherst College
2.  Claremont-McKenna College
3.  DePauw University
4.  Haverford College
5.  Lafayette College
6.  Occidental College
7.  Pomona College
8.  Saint John’s University (Minn.)
9.  Swarthmore College
10. Vassar College
11. Wabash College
12. Williams College

Comprehensive State Universities
1. Brooklyn College, City University 
    of New York
2. California State Polytechnic University,
3. California State University, Long Beach
4. Lock Haven University
5. Towson University
6. Valdosta State University

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