Last week, the American Council on Education issued a report on the state of black males in the higher education system. The report reveals some interesting and disturbing trends. It turns out that black men are graduating from college at a rate which lags significantly behind other ethnic groups. When determining graduation probabilities over a six-year period, black males were found to have a graduation rate of 35 percent. This compares with rates of 59 percent, 46 percent and 45 percent for white males, hispanic males and black women, respectively. In other words, black men are a little more than half as likely to finish college when compared to their white male counterparts.
I have been a black man for my entire life now, and I’ve taught at the college level for the past 17 years. So, perhaps I can shed some light on the nature of these problems and how we might work to solve them. Some of the factors are institutional and some are cultural, so prepare to be offended by at least one of the things I have to say:
1) Most American universities refuse to hire or retain African American professors, including many HBCUs: If your professors look like you, you are more likely to relate to that individual and enjoy the class. When I went to The University of Kentucky, Indiana University and The Ohio State University (where I earned my PhD), I didn’t see one single professor who looked like me (and I took A LOT of classes). This made for an incredibly awkward and damn near traumatic educational experience. When I first noticed institutions like Morehouse College presenting images of black males in the front of the classroom, I was envious after realizing what I’d been missing. Rather than finding excuses for firing or not hiring black professors, most universities would be well-advised to stop lying to themselves and become serious about diversity. Yes, black professors are out there to hire if you are looking for them, but many academic departments find a reason to believe that they are not qualified. Just look at the experiences of myself, Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson as cases in point. Each of us has received significant resistance in our careers because our work is connected to the black community. Our stories are just the tip of the iceberg, since there are thousands of black professors who’ve gone through the exact same experience when dealing with the entrenched racism of academia. Many HBCUs are not immune to this trend, as most of them don’t have very many African American professors (Don’t believe me? Go to the Computer Science Department or Business School at any random HBCU and count the number of African American professors).
Click below to view GALLERY: Famous HBCU Alumni
2) Black men need to value education the way we value basketball, hip hop and other BS: Black men have swag like no other, and we dominate sports, along with pretty much everything else we put our minds to. I would love to see us dominate academically as well, since an uneducated man is always begging to be another man’s sucker. There is a direct correlation between the number of hours spent studying and the level of your performance. Smart kids who don’t study fail my classes, and dumb kids who study hard end up getting good grades. It’s not rocket science. Even if you make it to the NBA or NFL, without an education, someone is simply going to take your money away from you. So, when we cheer on “Pookie-nem” for getting the game winning dunk, we need to cheer just as hard for Pookie when he brings home straight As on his report card. Sports are temporary – intellectual achievement lasts forever and will pay you rewards far greater than the chump change earned by most athletes (except a lucky few). This is not to hate on the athletes, because I was always one of them. Once I applied my athletic work ethic to academics, I found that my life was far more satisfying.
3) Our Inner City School Systems are Terrible: Black boys are roughly 5 times more likely to be placed in special education than white kids. Inner city schools are not properly funded relative to suburban schools. Our kids are not getting what they need in order to be successful and our nation is ignoring this problem. For the black male in America, there is always the threat of the “Trinity from Hell,” which is the Educational System, Unemployment and Mass Incarceration. This triangle of devastation for the African American family must be dealt with and confronted as seriously as almost any other matter of national security. That is what I plan to address next week with Rev. Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous and Marc Morial at the Black Leadership Summit in New York City on April 17.
4) Many of us don’t set high expectations for ourselves in college: If only I could get students to spend as much time looking for the library as they spend looking for the nearest party, we’d all be in good shape. Rather than going to college expecting excellence from ourselves, many of us go to college begging to be mediocre. This has got to change and it MUST CHANGE NOW. When you send your kids to college, tell them they should study no less than 4 hours a day. While that might seem like a long time, it’s unbelievable that we will spend 8 hours a day working at McDonalds or 5 hours a day playing videogames, but shirk at the idea of spending 4 hours a day doing something that will create a bright future for ourselves. We already know how to work hard (we were slaves, after all), now it’s time for our people to learn how to work smart. By getting a strong educational foundation, you can get paid more to work less a few years later in life. My mother used to tell me these things when I was young and stupid, and it wasn’t until I was 30 years old on a cruise ship in the Bahamas that I called to thank her. While education doesn’t just provide economic benefits, it is certainly the fastest train out of the land of poverty.
I was a terrible student in high school. My grades were an embarrassment to my family because I didn’t translate the hard work I put into sports and use that work ethic to succeed academically. After the birth of my daughter at the age of 18 (which petrified me), I made that switch. It was the best decision I’ve ever made, and had I not made that decision, my life would have turned into a nightmare. I share this story with all black men in America. My hope is that you will dismiss mediocre effort and make the conscious decision to be outstanding. The power belongs to you.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the author of the books, “Black American Money” and “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about College.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.