My Brother’s Keeper: Five Reasons Why Boys Drop Out and What We Must Do About It




Earlier this week, President Obama announced an unprecedented national public-private initiative – My Brother’s Keeper – designed to improve the quality of life of minority male youth. Several foundations have pledged $200M over the next five years to coordinate other investments in time and resources to design, create and evaluate successful support programs to keep young Black and Latino males out of the criminal justice system, and to improve their access to higher education. In addition, the directive will create a federal task force to study and publish the effectiveness of such programs to surface best practices that are proven to improve key outcomes.

Representative John Lewis of Georgia, himself a legend of the Civil Rights Movement, called the initiative “long overdue.” And I agree.

The Talented Seventh

Last year, the Frederick Patterson Research Institute of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) found that only 7% of African American males will be expected to graduate from college in 10 years after beginning high school if current trends continue. Out of nearly 360,000 annual Black male 9th graders, only 25,000 will earn a college degree after four years of high school and six years of college! When I was in school, a test score below 65% was failing. A 7% on a test was almost like not showing up!


What’s Up With the Guys?

To be clear, males do significantly more poorly in school than their female counterparts for all racial and ethnic groups. The educational failure of boys is clearly a systematic problem that requires bold solutions that few communities, educational institutions and governmental agencies have begun to address. For Black and Latino boys, the problems are more poignant. For this reason, I applaud President Obama’s initiative that shines a spotlight on this crisis and convenes a lasting coalition to fix it, not an ephemeral government program that could disappear with the whims of Congress, an appropriations bill or a presidential election. However, to be most effective, we have to understand the reasons why so many young men fail.

Why They Drop Out


There’s no one reason to explain why so many young men of color disproportionately leave high school and college at alarming rates. After all, everyone is different; we all grow up in unique circumstances and have dissimilar parents and family structures. Our schools and neighborhoods are different. And so to posit one explanation for the lack of success for any student is ludicrous.

Rather, I believe (and the research bears this out) that there is a confluence of factors that explain why so many more males of color drop out than any other demographic. Here are a few:

Discrimination: That African American and Latino males are negatively over-represented in just about every sector of American society (unemployment, criminal justice, inadequate housing, and poor healthcare) could explain why our young men from these groups are also under-performing in school.

And yet, while discrimination may play a role in segregating families and schools (and teachers) along racial or socioeconomic lines, there are many schools in low-income districts and charter school networks that challenge these fatalistic conclusions. Rather than shielding themselves from the neighborhood, these schools embrace the community and leverage its assets to educate the children. In other words, one’s zip code doesn’t have to predict their destiny.

Preparation: A lack of adequate preparation could negatively influence a young man’s chances to succeed in high school and college, particularly in the first year of the new school. This described my college transition, lacking chemistry and biology.

Despite this reality, recent studies have found that high-achieving low-income students with the right support can graduate at rates between four and ten times the national average for their peers, effectively closing the yawning achievement gap between low-income and wealthier students. Successful students who make up the gap know how to take advantage of school resources designed to level-set all incoming students.

School Engagement: Students who are integrated and involved, who feel satisfied with the academic and social systems, and feel connected with campus life are more likely to graduate. Not surprisingly, the corollary is also true. The more socially isolated the student feels, the less likely that student will persist in college.

Giving young men a way to meet key faculty and administrators on an informal basis builds confidence; joining a team or a club introduces structure and a social community, and enables him to discover something he enjoys doing.

Money Matters: On average, low-income students enter college with more unmet financial need after all scholarships and grants are applied. They make up for this gap by taking out loans or working on or off campus. Working off campus especially reduces the level of engagement one has to be successful, as discussed earlier.

Closing the funding gap and reducing debt is critical to increasing college persistence.

Motivation: After repeated and chronic failure in school, most students, without external intervention, can reach a point of learned helplessness. That’s a state when they throw up their hands and decide that no amount of additional effort will change their outcomes, whether it is an improved grade or getting better at a skill or subject.

Here, it’s important to note that there’s always a benefit to working harder and studying, even if there are signals from the school or neighborhood culture that tell a young man otherwise. National studies show a positive relationship between study time and grades. Hard work always pays, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first.

Are These Just Excuses?

In making the announcement, President Obama stressed the importance of taking personal responsibility for their actions and outcomes, that “nothing will be given to them.” While what I touched on above are some of the known factors that educational researchers use to explain why Black and Latino boys drop out of high school and college at alarming rates, they shouldn’t be taken as excuses. No. In fact, I’ve also discovered in my 15 years as an educator that the most powerful indicators of success are  connections students make, and the attitude and behaviors they bring to school, about which I’ve written in this blog. Look again at the list and see how attitudes, connections and behaviors figure prominently. Our boys certainly need to work harder, but we must also inspire and teach them to work smarter.  

Talking about the problems and facilitating opportunities to engage young men of color is a vital first step. Knowing the causes and then developing workable solutions is much harder. Let’s work harder and smarter. Invoking Congressman Lewis said, it’s long overdue!


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Join the discussion One Comment

  • kmandrup says:

    Society is becoming ever more hostile towards boys and men. Suicide rates are increasing as well… Radical feminism is the root cause. Also a complete lack of role models, identity crisis and being constantly under pressure and accused for and blamed for being a boy, while girls are hailed and encouraged with #girlpower etc. etc. It’s a woman’s world indeed. They have all the power and privilege, boys and men have to take on all responsibilities, jump through hoops all their lives and take all the pain.