The undergraduate enrollment and graduation rates of Black males have long been points of consternation in higher education.
A 1989 Washington Post article headlined “Black Males Increasingly Rare in College” openly fretted over the dearth of the population on university campuses across the country, citing an American Council on Education study that accordingly described Black males as “disproportionately at risk in American society.”
Yet, contemporary articles from the same publications underscore how little has changed. Per the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, Black men represent just 4.6% of all postsecondary enrollment, or just over 850,000 of the nation’s 18.6 million college students. These numbers can feel particularly acute at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) such as Howard University, where the female-to-male ratio is approximately 3-to-1, according to the University’s fall 2022 campus census.
The Numbers Behind the Story
Modern data makes a persuasive, if practical, argument that Black males are not pursuing postsecondary education at high rates simply because many are not graduating from high school. The most recent Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males, released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education in 2015, reported that national public high school graduation rates were 59% for Black male students in comparison to 65% for Latino males and 80% for white, non-Latino males. Although the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated school districts nationwide relaxing their graduation requirements, whether these students are truly prepared for tertiary education remains a concern.
The statistics only continue to paint a grim picture. The National Student Clearinghouse published that Black male undergraduate enrollment decreased by 14.3% between March 2020 and March 2021. The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) recently declared that Black men have the lowest college completion rate at 40%. A 2021 Education Trust investigation into 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data uncovered that only 26.5% of Black men held a college degree compared to 44.3% of white men.
The good news is that select schools like Howard have reported historic increases in their male application, enrollment, and graduation rates. For the academic year 2022-23, the University received 9,705 male first-time-in-college (FTIC) applications, well over triple the amount collected a decade earlier. In fall 2022, the University enrolled 2,758 male students, a 17% growth from fall 2013 — and a 31% bump from fall 2019. The University’s four- and six-year graduation rates for males have likewise trended upward over the past 10 years.
Jarrett Carter Sr., director of operations, strategy, and communications in the University’s Office of the Chief Operating Officer, attributes the boost in male interest to Howard’s metropolitan location, its breadth of degree programs, and its inclusive environment. “These are the mechanisms we have in place for every Howard student, and there are elements of the ecosystem that in direct and indirect ways look to contribute to male achievement,” Carter says.
“We are trying to buck historic trends,” Carter continues. “While we may not be able to recruit by race or gender, we still want Black males to know that Howard University is a place where they can succeed.”
Male FTIC applications received by Howard in 2022-23
2,990 Male FTIC applications received by Howard in 2013-14
Digging Into the Roots
Calvin J. Hadley (BA ’08, PhD ’23), senior advisor for strategic initiatives in the University’s Office of the President, contends this crisis goes much deeper than the numbers and is rooted in white supremacy itself. “If you take a sociohistorical analysis of the United States of America, the contemporary racial disparities, including the underrepresentation of the Black male in college, were seeded and perpetuated intentionally,” Hadley says.
Hadley describes white supremacy as “nimble,” and notes that dexterity has facilitated its varied manifestations throughout American history — from the collapse of the Reconstruction era post-slavery to the birth of the prison industrial complex after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, just to name a few. “The concept of white supremacy is rooted in privilege, access, and power,” Hadley says. “And the Black male has always had a pivotal role in maintaining it.”
Hadley’s doctoral studies focused on academic and professional success for Black boys, many of them suffering from what Hadley describes as the “belief gap” in the American educational system. “Black boys are suspended at higher rates than any other group, they have the lowest participation in advanced placement classes, and they have the lowest graduation rates amongst their peers,” Hadley says. “Many are convinced early in their lives that school is not for them, and they end up buying into it. If they cannot envision their future success tied to the classroom, eventually they stop exerting maximum effort and develop dreams that do not include college degrees.”
Robert T. Palmer, PhD, professor and chair in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Howard University, has noticed students from all backgrounds conducting cost-benefit analyses into postsecondary education’s short- and long-term advantages. For a host of them, the proximate gratification of gainful employment outweighs the distant and often abstract promises of a college education.
“Nowadays, students can graduate high school and find a job paying, for example, twenty dollars an hour,” Palmer says. “There is this question of is higher education affordable or worth [the investment] given the student loan debt that’s been discussed in the media.”
But for Black males in particular, Palmer notes how an absence of education-centric exemplars can produce heavier questions and deeply intractable misconceptions regarding race, gender, and authenticity. “There are issues in terms of toxic masculinity, and there are issues with some folks equating [gaining] education with ‘acting white,’” Palmer says. “In [kindergarten through 12th grade], we still have a system where there exists a lack of Black teachers, and those Black men may not have role models or someone to cultivate their sense of self-efficacy, and let them know they have the knowledge, skills, and ability to succeed in higher education.”
A System of Support
Isaac Alicea, a senior business management major at Howard, attests to the power of Black male mentorship on his journey to and through the University. While just a sixth grader, Alicea first visited Howard with his father and brother as part of a mentoring program.
“Just coming here, knowing that this place existed, it was a life-changing experience,” Alicea says, crediting his early exposure to the University as “instrumental” in being able to envision one day returning to Howard as an undergraduate. “Bringing prospective students to campus is vital,” he emphasizes.
Alicea’s first year as a Howard student coincided with the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, depriving him and his new classmates of the on-campus experiences standard for the University’s freshmen. Despite his physical distance from Howard, Alicea remained diligent about building meaningful relationships with his peers and professors, ultimately finding community within the Men of the Mecca Initiative (MMI) founded by Hadley in 2019.
I know firsthand how difficult it can be to be successful as a Black man in college. It’s a lot easier if you have a system of support around you.”
“A lot of us are facing the same if not very similar issues,” Alicea says. “We’re really trying to create that community where we can be a resource to each other. That’s really what MMI is: a resource to success for the Howard male.”
According to Hadley and Alicea, one of MMI’s primary objectives is defining the “Howard Man,” with each gladly pointing to fellow HBCU Morehouse College as inspiration. The initiative’s willingness to compliment the customs of an ostensible rival speaks to its broader desire to exist in collaboration with a variety of organizations both on- and off-campus. Hadley expressed MMI’s ambition to be an “umbrella” for all of Howard’s male-facing organizations.
“As Black men, we’re often taught that we have to be strong and do everything ourselves and not look for help,” Alicea says. “Finding this community has ignited more motivation in me to continue giving back to the community and building brotherhood on campus, because I know firsthand how difficult it can be to be successful as a Black man in college. It’s a lot easier if you have a system of support around you.”
Hadley anticipates that partnerships with District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) will significantly impact the Black male pipeline to the University, and these local successes have encouraged him to pursue relationships with public school districts spanning from the DMV to his home state of California. Though he acknowledges that the historical shortage of Black males in college is not distinct to Howard, he remains firm that the University is uniquely positioned to intercede.
“I truly believe we have an opportunity to lead the nation in this effort,” Hadley insists. “There is no small or simple solution, but I believe that at Howard University, we have the power — and the capacity — to lead.”
O brothers, where art thou?
“They are out working, living, and dreaming of beautiful, successful futures,” Hadley says. “But many have been convinced that college is not for them, so those successful futures do not include college degrees.
“It is our job to change that. It starts with us.”
Article ID: 1401