The Force Behind Black Men’s College Success: Determination


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School success takes perseverance. Image by elodie.

School success takes perseverance. Image by elodie.

Although black leaders celebrate the phenomenon of the first black president, they recognize that the overall picture for young black men’s academic and professional success is not rosy.

African-Americans represent only 12% of the 19 million students enrolled in colleges across the U.S., and collegiate black women outnumber their male counterparts by two to one. Black men are more likely than any other group to start out at a two-year community college instead of at a full college, and they generally earn lower grades. They also take longer to complete their degrees, if they complete them at all.

Two thirds of all black male college students, the highest proportion among all groups, leave college before finishing their degrees.

Some researchers have decided to stop focusing on the negatives of current the state of the black man, and instead look at the strengths. These academics have searched for the exceptions to the above rules, and chosen to ask those men about the factors leading to their success. They realize that recognizing the positive forces, and not only viewing the deficits, will give educators and parents the tools they need to help more black males achieve academic success.

True Grit

A 2013 study published in the Journal of African American Studies identifies some of the success-promoting factors. The study’s researcher, Terrell L. Strayhorn, is a professor of educational studies at Ohio State University. He contends that previous academic achievement and talent are insufficient factors for determining college success for black men. Instead, he proposes that grit, or the dedication to pursuing and achieving a goal regardless of the obstacles, is the key factor, especially when the students study at a predominantly white campus.

Strayhorn studied 140 black male full-time students at an American university. Most of the men were first-generation college students who had grown up in urban neighborhoods. The students filled out the Black Male Student Success Questionnaire (BMSSQ), which measures students’ college experiences, such as their engagement in the school, as well as transition and adjustment. The students also self-reported their grades, and most importantly, completed the Short Grit Scale, a well-established measure of both passion and perseverance. Passion is described as consistency in one’s interests over time, and perseverance is a person’s ability to sustain effort in the face of adversity.

The results showed that black males with higher levels of grit earned higher grades in college than their peers of the same race. Beyond talent, grit can predict achievement in challenging arenas. That means that teachers and parents who want to encourage black boys to succeed should encourage them to apply themselves, exert effort, and passionately persevere in their work, even if they don’t receive excellent grades.

College Readiness

Dr. Shaun Harper, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, is the founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Inequality. He has embarked on a study of black and Latino students in New York City, and in 2014, published the first article to emerge from that study, “Succeeding in the City.”

For the study, Harper and his colleagues interviewed 415 students, ninety of whom were college students, while the remaining were high school juniors and seniors intent on attending college. They sought to understand how youth from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds succeeded in academic environments.

Purposeful Parenting

Harper found that the students overwhelmingly reported having highly supportive parents who verbalized their expectations that their sons would attend college. Many of their parents were high school dropouts who exhorted their children to learn from their parents’ mistakes and improve their lives.

The academically-successful black males had parents who believed in the importance of their sons’ success, and who sought out academic resources when help was needed. They also discouraged their sons from spending time outside, often shuttling them from school to home to avoid exposing them to the dangers of the streets. As a result, the students both used their time more productively and were shielded from common problems in their neighborhoods, such as being recruited to deal drugs or join a gang.

Eyes on the Prize

The high-achieving college students in Harper’s study noted that they maintained similar habits. They reported being involved in educationally purposeful activities while outside the classroom, instead of socializing. They felt that they had little time to waste, and valued upholding their reputations. Furthermore, they often formed relationships with faculty who advised clubs in which they were members, and that drove them to work hard to impress those faculty members with their academic abilities.

Success, Regardless Of Race

Who succeeds at college? It’s not always a function of intelligence, and it’s certainly not a function of skin color. As Strayhorn found, sticking to the program, studying assiduously, and asking mentors for help when needed, keeps all young people on the path to success.

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