December 30, 2003
Colleges Struggle to Help Black Men Stay Enrolled
atching Simon Jackson in class is like watching a man who is conflicted about being in college. For long stretches, he huddles silently in the back corner, his head sunk into his bulky jacket. But every so often he strides to the front of the room to chat with the professor or to write on the chalkboard, self-assured to the point of cockiness.
A 10th-grade dropout who earned a high school equivalency diploma, Mr. Jackson, 21, is now a freshman at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, eager, he says, to get a college degree.
"I was in school trying to learn," he said. "I liked to learn. I still do. That's why I'm here now."
As a black man, he is also a rare commodity that the college, part of the City University of New York, is eager to hold on to. The class Mr. Jackson was sitting in recently was a freshman orientation class created this year for men only, in hopes of keeping black male students on track.
Over the course of the semester, class discussions veered from little things, like ways to remember to bring books to school, to how the students felt when they could not get waited on in stores and how difficult it was to go anywhere, even to school, without money in their pockets.
At Medgar Evers, where 97 percent of the male students are black, the number of male students has been disproportionately low for more than a decade. Right now, only 22 percent of the students are male. And the men are far less likely to graduate than the women.
The discrepancies are not unique to Medgar Evers. Women outnumber men at most colleges, but the gap is especially large among black students. Nationally, barely a quarter of the 1.9 million black men between 18 and 24 — prime college-going years — were in college in 2000, according to the American Council on Education's most recent report on minorities in higher education. By comparison, 35 percent of black women in the same age group and 36 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in higher education.
And the graduation rate of black men is lower than that of any other group. Only 35 percent of the black men who entered N.C.A.A. Division I colleges in 1996, for example, graduated within six years, compared with 59 percent of the white men, 46 percent of the Hispanic men, 41 percent of the American Indian men and 45 percent of the black women who entered the same year.
"It's the shame of American higher education," said Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College at Columbia University.
Researchers say the obstacles keeping black men from earning college degrees include poor education before college, the low expectations that teachers and others have for them, a lack of black men as role models, their dropout rate from high school and their own low aspirations.
While most of these problems are common to disadvantaged minority students regardless of sex, black men have the special burden of being pigeonholed early in a way that black female students are not. This was among the findings of the African-American Male Initiative, a program set up by the University System of Georgia to research and remove the obstacles to college enrollment and graduation for black men. The system has 17,000 black men among 250,000 students on its 34 campuses.
The downward spiral begins in Head Start classrooms, said Arlethia Perry-Johnson, the chairwoman of the initiative and an associate vice chancellor of the Georgia system. Some black male students are labeled developmentally delayed, funneled into special education and "never get mainstreamed," she said. Shoved off the college prep track, they begin a "cycle of being reprimanded, disciplined and ultimately suspended for negative behavior," she said, leading to expulsion, unemployment and even crime and imprisonment.
Solving the problem is beginning to get more attention at colleges. Nearly three dozen selective liberal arts colleges, including Amherst, Swarthmore and Wesleyan, have united to create a working group on minority achievement issues, including the underrepresentation of black and Latino men in colleges.
Recently, Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., sponsored a symposium on the absence of black men in higher education. Women outnumber men by about 2 to 1 at Howard.
This year, Medgar Evers, in addition to creating the all-male course for freshmen, founded a Male Development and Empowerment Center to do research on the problems black men have in college and offer seminars on topics like money management and relationships with women.
"I decided I had to stop lamenting their plight and try to arrest the decline that is taking place, at least at our institution," said Edison O. Jackson, the president of the college. "What I'm hoping to do is to change the culture, change how we interact with black males. To the extent we can succeed, perhaps the model can be used by others."
Dr. Jackson, who is no relation to Simon Jackson, decided to teach the all-male course himself. Last semester, the class ran three hours on Thursday evenings, after many of the students had already worked a full day. The students ranged from their late teens to their 30's. Many were immigrants from the Caribbean. Some had children — at least one was a single father — and they sometimes missed classes to take care of their youngsters.
Dr. Jackson or his assistant, Hakim Lucas, directed the class discussion. One evening, a student volunteered that he was troubled by his recent attempt to buy his brother a birthday present at Tiffany's. He said he had had trouble attracting a salesclerk's attention.
"I'm seeing everyone else getting helped," he said, "and no one would help me. I feel like I was being judged."
Dr. Jackson, a short black man with a shaved head, told the class he knew what they were facing. Not long ago, when he had taken a guest to dinner at Tavern on the Green, he was led past a row of empty tables to one at the back of the room, jammed up against a Christmas tree.
"I didn't get angry," he told the students. "I said: `I'm sorry. This is not what I want.' It makes no sense to get nasty and ugly." His table was changed.
He also told them about trips he had made to stores recently, dressed in jeans and sneakers, and being followed by security guards.
"It is a challenge for us as black men," he said. "You can't fall prey to that. You can't overreact."
Social habits and camaraderie became the focus on another night when Peter Holoman, the director of the Male Development and Empowerment Center, who was visiting the class, observed that the men were scattered around the room as if a teacher had spread them out before a test. Mr. Holoman encouraged them to trade phone numbers and find ways to study together.
"With the sisters, if they don't get something in class, they turn to another student and say: `Girl, I don't understand that. Give me your number,' " Mr. Holoman said later. "But the brothers are not doing it. They are silent. They don't want to show they are not getting it. It's a sense of machismo."
Mr. Holoman also shared his own bumpy personal journey of how he became homeless after too much drinking, hanging out and not taking life seriously. "The choices we make, the things we do, catch up with us," he said.
But having role models is not the same as taking hold of one's life. Dr. Jackson said that even black male students from middle-class, educated families have difficulty.
One is Terrence Agard, 19, whose mother is a school principal and whose older brother is in medical school. "Our whole household environment was conducive to learning," he said. "We could talk about issues."
But high school was a struggle. He was dismissed from one for fighting. At another, he started hanging out with gang members.
"There was a lot of excessive aggression at the school and after school," he said. "Studying was not at all a priority. The priority was survival."
He dropped out at 16 and earned a high school equivalency diploma. He enrolled at Medgar Evers but realized he did not really want to be in college and dropped out. After working as a teacher's aide at a day care center and becoming a father, he decided to try again, so that his son would have someone to look up to.
He called Medgar Evers "the first school I've come to where I really wanted to be," but admitted he had not been conscientious about attending classes.
"I'm muddling through," he said, in an interview during the semester. "Honestly, I still want to do what I can to chill and hang out. I'm trying to figure out how to balance my life."
Simon Jackson seemed to be waging a similar battle. He said that he, too, grew up in a family that valued education, and that his parents wanted him to become a doctor. In high school, he qualified for honors courses, he said, but they were stressful and he dropped them. He spoke breezily of "having a nice mansion with a lab on the side." But he did not like his remedial math class at Medgar Evers, and partway through the semester said he was having "big problems" in college.
One problem was money. He started a job at the college television studio — a job Dr. Jackson lined up for him — but he said that working 25 hours a week interfered with his studying.
Things were not going well on the job, either. He skipped a day of work, he said, because he had no money. He could have walked to work, but he said it was hard to walk around school with nothing in his pocket.
One night near the end of the semester, Dr. Jackson offered to help anyone drop courses they were in danger of failing.
But there were no takers. Instead, many students were taking advantage of extra group tutorial sessions he had set up for them, and several said the sessions were useful.
One exception was Mr. Agard, who was not there. He had been swept up in personal problems and had stopped attending classes. He ended up withdrawing, but has registered to return.
"I'm definitely going to keep trying," he said last night.
Except for one other student, who had been sent to Iraq, the rest of the students had also registered for the next semester. Dr. Jackson viewed that, in itself, as a victory, since dropout rates are highest in the freshman year.
Dr. Jackson said he would teach the class again next semester. He had planned to teach it only one semester, but he said that this group of freshmen needed more coaching and that he wanted to stay with them.