Saving Our Young Black Men

One of the most alarming trends threatening the economic stability and wealth-building capacity of African Americans is the declining presence of black men on our nation’s college campuses. According to the American Council on Education, of the 1.8 million black men of traditional college age — 18 to 24 — only 25% were seeking higher education in 2004.

The good news is that African Americans are more likely to finish high school and attend college than ever before. In fact, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the college enrollment gap between whites and blacks who completed high school was cut in half between 1991 and 2000.

However, that progress has been driven almost entirely by black women. In 2000, nearly two-thirds of all black females who completed high school had gone on to enroll in or finish college, compared to just over half of their black male peers. The college enrollment and completion rate for young black males was lower in 2000 (53.4%) than in any year since 1993 (50.7%).

The result of this trend is as disturbing as it is predictable. Black men constitute only 40% of all first-year full-time black students attending four-year institutions in 2004, compared to nearly 45% in 1971. This growing gender gap in higher education is as prevalent at historically black colleges and universities as it is at predominantly white institutions. In fact, black male enrollment has fallen to as little as 30% at several HBCUs.

Why is this happening? It’s easy to point the finger at the public school system, which continues to do a poor job of preparing our kids for higher education and job opportunities. However, our girls are coming out of the same schools. No, the problem is deeper than that. We’ve allowed the bitter seeds of low expectation, apathy, and mediocrity to take root in the lives of too many of our black boys. We sadly acknowledge, but rarely take a stand against, the fact that our boys are far more likely than our girls to be ridiculed, ostracized, and even physically assaulted for demonstrating enthusiasm for academic achievement. Our boys are far more likely than our girls to be celebrated for almost anything other than educational attainment. The role models typically held up for black boys, such as entertainers and athletes, rarely associate higher education as critical to success. And while there are many local and national programs aimed at boosting academic achievement and expectations for girls, such programs are few and far between for black boys.

The price we pay as African Americans is enormous — measured in everything from unemployment and poverty to rates of incarceration — and amounts to a significant and unacceptable diminution in our capacity to build sustainable wealth.

As we bring in the new year, let us each personally resolve to change this. Let’s champion the creation and support of programs designed to enable, encourage, and celebrate the academic achievement of black boys. When our boys are attacked or intimidated for demonstrating a commitment to academic achievement,

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