Improving African American Male Achievement in College: It’s Not Rocket Science



Much has been written, pontificated, and deliberated about the plight of African American males in a variety of societal segments including criminal justice, employment, healthcare, and family responsibility. But few topics have surfaced the collective angst about their fate like education. Without question, education has been a failing domain for many African American males, a population that is chronically underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, and over-represented in lower-ability groups and special education classes.

The fact is, our young men are an endangered breed, particularly as they advance through ever-higher educational levels. The Schott Foundation in their report Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and African American Males 2010 reports “the national percentage of African American males enrolled at each stage of schooling declines from middle school through graduate degree programs.” Witness any high school graduation in the country and you’ll observe this phenomena first hand: When it comes to recognizing the academic exemplars – valedictorian, salutatorian, honor society inductees – it’s rare to see a young African American male take the stage, even in schools with high concentrations of this group.

It’s no surprise then that the share of African American college degrees conferred to African American men are declining, a trend that began almost 30 years ago according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. African American men earn just a third of all bachelor’s degrees conferred to African Americans, and only one-third finish college within six years, compared to nearly 50 percent of African American women. Indeed, the same Journal ominously predicts the unlikely, yet mathematical possibility that by 2097, African American women will earn all degrees received by African Americans!

These reports, and the myriad that preceded them rightly raise the alarm about our young men. Yet, with few exceptions such as the Schott Foundation report and the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s (UMBC) Meyerhoff Scholars Program, rarely do they counterbalance the doom and gloom accounts by illuminating successful models and programs that have dramatically improved the achievement and outcomes of African American males.

Before joining UNCF, I spent five years honing a residence-based freshman seminar at MIT. The seminar was required of all freshmen who elected to live in this all-male living group, a small section of a co-ed dormitory comprising mostly (but not exclusively) African American and Latino undergraduates. The seminar design was informed by my emerging understanding of what it took to foster success of African American males in college from my doctoral studies and dissertation research that I pursued in parallel.

Rather than adding to the well-worn discourse about “what’s wrong” with these guys, my research and subsequent work took on a “glass half-full” approach. In other words, I wanted to know what works for high achieving African American male undergraduates – those with a GPA above 3.0. I studied African American males attended five predominantly White public and private universities located in the northeast, the mid-Atlantic, and the south.

What I discovered was not rocket science. Successful African American male undergraduates had the following characteristics in common:

  • They had high confidence in their academic ability.
  • They had strong relationships with faculty.
  • They were more socially integrated in the campus community.
  • They possessed a strong “internalized” racial identity.

Since joining UNCF two years ago, I’ve visited over 30 historically Black colleges and universities and participated in national workshops and roundtables about African American male achievement, the most recent hosted by the Quality Education for Minorities (QEM) Network gathering of experts and university practitioners in Atlanta. Building on my research and others, and reviewing the most successful programs, I distilled five common features and institutional belief systems that can easily be replicated at high and middle schools to improve the performance of African American males (and of all students):

  • They own the responsibility to improve outcomes of all students, and especially their African American males, with faculty who feel that they can and are empowered to influence their collective outcomes, and whose institutions, from the President on down takes ownership of the challenges, rather than just talking about them.
  • Universities like UMBC that are intentional about building the academic self-confidence of African American males by facilitating early success, communicating high expectations, and providing positive role models and formal mentors to support their academic pursuits.
  • Programs that facilitate opportunities to increase informal contact with senior administration and faculty through roundtables, membership on institutional committees, co-curricular and extracurricular activities that allow faculty to see students outside of the classroom context, and collaborative research projects.
  • Good programs increase faculty and counseling staff awareness about racial identity schema and subsequently attend to the racial identity development of African American male students which may dictate their circle of friendships, their emotional responses when confronted by racism, their predisposition toward non-white faculty and counselors, and willingness to take on unfamiliar intellectual risks. Successful institutions like Morehouse College are infusing topics about identity across the curricula and thus foster holistic development that leads to healthy senses of self.
  • Finally, colleges like MIT increase opportunities for African American males and other students to develop the necessary “habits of mind” that ensure that they can deploy effective learning strategies such as leveraging study groups, office hours, reading and writing workshops, and to understand that lack of effective effort is typically the cause of low performance, and not lack of ability as Jeff Howard’s Boston-based Efficacy Institute has created.

These findings and strategies are not particularly novel. They don’t constitute significant new educational thinking distinctive for African American males. No, they are just solid, proven educational practices from which all students can benefit. And yet, tragically, “good practice” and “education” are typically not systematically juxtaposed when it comes to African American males. To do so, to take successful models to scale requires vision, resolve, new policy incentives, targeted investments, and a groundswell of grass roots support to demand that the nation’s educational institutions across the P-16 spectrum do something about it. After all, it’s not rocket science.

An adaptation of this article was published in 2010 in the Grio and other online journals:

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  • Very good post. My ambition for college when I start next year is to finish my degree(hopefully an MFA), step out of my comfort zone and to leave a legacy. These tips to improve college performance are invaluable. Thanks.