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Colleges Struggle to Help Black Men Stay Enrolled
December 30, 2003
By KAREN W. ARENSON
Watching 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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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.
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