What colleges are doing right for black male students
OPINION - Our young men are an endangered breed. And the higher the level of education, the more endangered they are...
The headline may catch some readers by surprise. We’re used to talking about what’s going wrong for black males: Over-represented in the criminal justice system, under-represented on payrolls; victims of inadequate health care and neglectful of their family responsibilities. And in education: chronically over-represented in lower-ability groups and special education programs, and underrepresented in gifted and talented programs.
It’s true: Our young men are an endangered breed. And the higher the level of education, the more endangered they are. According to a recent report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, “The national percentage of black males enrolled at each stage of schooling declines from middle school through graduate degree programs.”
But a new documentary about black males and education, Beyond the Bricks, now touring the country, suggests that maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe, instead of looking at black males who are falling by the educational wayside and asking what they and the schools they attend are doing wrong, we should be looking at the black males who are succeeding, and asking what the colleges they attend are doing right.
I started asking that question at MIT, before I joined UNCF. I looked at the histories of black male students at MIT and several other colleges and universities, looking for the secret of their success. Here’s what the students I surveyed had 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
The next step was to ask what colleges are doing to foster those winning attitudes. What kinds of programs produced students with confidence and learning behaviors that led to success? What were the most successful programs and institutions doing right?
Five program attributes stood out:
They own the responsibility to improve outcomes of all students, and especially black males. From the president on down, institutions like UNCF member Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, take ownership of the challenges, rather than just talking about them. Their faculty feels that they can—and are empowered to—directly influence both individual and collective student outcomes.
They are intentional about building the academic self-confidence of black males. Successful programs, like the Meyerhoff Scholars Program of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), facilitate early success, communicate high expectations to students, and provide positive role models and formal mentors to support students’ academic pursuits.
They increase informal contact with senior administration and faculty. The President’s Men program at UNCF member institution Florida Memorial University utilizes roundtables, membership on institutional committees, co-curricular and extracurricular activities and collaborative research projects that allow faculty to see students outside of the classroom context.
They increase faculty and counseling staff awareness about racial identity schema. Successful institutions attend to the racial (and gender) identity development of black male students, which shapes their circles of friendships, their emotional responses when confronted by racism, their predisposition toward non-white and same-race faculty and counselors, and their willingness to take on unfamiliar intellectual risks. For instance, Morehouse College, informed by the work of its Morehouse Male Initiative, is infusing topics about identity across the curricula and thus fostering the holistic development that leads to healthy senses of self.
They increase opportunities for black males and other students to develop critical “habits of mind.” Colleges like MIT ensure that their black male students can deploy effective learning strategies such as leveraging study groups, office hours, reading and writing workshops. They also understand that lack of effective effort is typically the cause of low performance, not lack of ability, an understanding that the Boston-based Efficacy Institute has rooted in their approach.
What works on one campus is worth trying on another. Where colleges like Philander Smith and universities like UMBC can lead, others can follow. And helping UNCF member colleges replicate those successful programs and results is the work of UNCF’s Institute for Capacity Building (ICB), an institutional improvement initiative that helps UNCF member institutions become stronger and more self-sustaining. Now entering its fifth year of operation, with all 39 of our member colleges and universities having taken part in at least one program, ICB is working for our schools.
Now we’re developing a capacity-building program that will help our colleges and universities take the lessons learned about black male success and apply them on their own campuses. We’ll start by performing an inventory of successful access and completion programs like the ones I’ve referred to above. We’ll make grants to help colleges develop innovative, evidence-based programs that enhance both the courses that are taught and the professors who teach them.
We will offer support for students as well as for faculty. There will be scholarship support for black males with the greatest financial need. There will be mentoring, “intrusive advising”, and faculty engagement initiatives. And there will be student affairs programming that fosters the positive identity development of African American males.
We will also institute a rigorous monitoring and evaluation process to ensure that we are meeting our intended outcomes. And we will disseminate the lessons learned from our work to other institutions through ICB-sponsored learning Institutes and publications.
None of these programs and the insights they are based on is novel—and that’s the point. We need to keep innovating, keep looking for new solutions. But we also need to have the vision and resolve to take successful approaches to scale, to benefit not just thousands of students but tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands.
Taking what works and doing more of it: It’s not rocket science.