When Black Men Succeed

Studying African-American males who "made it" to college, Penn scholar seeks to understand why -- and to get campus leaders and researchers to focus on success rather than just failure.

February 6, 2012

The litany of bad news about the status of black men in higher education is by now familiar. They make up barely 4 percent of all undergraduate students, the same proportion as in 1976. They come into college less prepared than their peers for the rigors of college-level academic work. Their completion rates are the lowest of all major racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.

Shaun R. Harper is tired of hearing the list. It's not that he believes it's inaccurate -- the facts are the facts -- or irrelevant. But what troubles Harper, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, is that it's pretty much all that we hear, in higher education research, in news reports, and as reflected in campus policies. That single-minded theme struck Harper personally as incomplete, since it didn't reflect his own experience or that of many black men he knew.

And it troubled him professionally, as well, because he believes the relentless emphasis by researchers and others on the failures of black men has helped "shape America's low expectations for black men." For teachers and counselors and others in a position to influence black men, he says, "if all you read about them is bad news, it's really hard to craft high expectations for them."

Harper set out to do something about it as he built his own research agenda as a graduate student a decade ago. In a study released today, the first from his new Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at Penn, Harper analyzes a cohort of 219 black men (at a range of institutional types) who meet rigorous criteria that define them as "achievers," to understand both how and why they succeeded in college, and what campus leaders and others might do to help others follow in their footsteps.

The answers drawn from the National Black Male College Achievement Study are anything but elemental. Demographically, the subjects look much like their black male peers -- three in five hail from low-income or working class backgrounds (compared to about two-thirds of all African-American families) and nearly half have parents with no college degree -- and as a group they shun the idea that they are cognitively smarter than their less-successful friends or cousins or other peers (and their high-school academic records largely back that up).

What does differentiate them, the study suggests, is a complex stew of mostly external factors that appeared to give them a sense that college was not only possible but expected, and engaged them academically and otherwise in their schools and colleges. Among those influences: involved parents with high expectations for them; at least one K-12 teacher who took a personal interest in their academic and personal future; adequate financial support to pay for college; and a transition to college in which high expectations were set for them as much if not more by influential black male juniors and seniors at their institutions as by formal programs designed to smooth their way.

The overpowering impression left by Harper's study, he and others say, is that while the achievers in his group worked hard and made their own way through significant personal effort and motivation, their path was fueled by what he calls "serendipitous" influences and factors that inspired them and connected them to their institutions. Why should their success be left to serendipity, they argue?

"We know a heck of a lot more about why and how and where black men fail than we do about how and why they are successful," says James Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation and a member of Harper's advisory panel. "Let's start with this group and figure out what it is about their experience, their environmental realities, that makes them successful, and advance institutional policies around assessment of outcomes that advance performance and the likelihood that more African-American males can do what these guys have done."

Beyond 'Deficit'

Like so many academic research agendas, Shaun Harper's was shaped as much by personal experience as by professional curiosity and interest. As he began his graduate work in higher education administration at Indiana University at Bloomington in the late 1990s, he was struck by the unending stream of research on the barriers to academic success for students, particularly related to black men. "I didn't see myself or my fraternity brothers and best friends reflected in those studies," he says.

Harper attributes the plethora of social science research on failure and students' "deficits" in part to the nature of doctoral education, in which graduate students are asked to identify a "research problem" and so are naturally drawn to "problems," rather than to topics that might focus on finding solutions.

But he also believes that when it comes to black men specifically, many years of emphasis on the struggles of black men have conditioned many people to assume that that's all there is. "If all you read about, in your coursework and in the media, is about black men failing, you tend to want to ask questions along those lines: why so few, why do they do so poorly, why are they so disengaged?" he says. "You try to find explanatory factors for the bad news."

"We know a heck of a lot more about why and how and where black men fail than we do about how and why they are successful."
--James Minor, Southern Education Foundation

So Harper set out with what he calls a "commonsense" approach: "If you want to understand how black men succeed in college, shouldn't you ask black men who succeeded in college what enabled them to be successful?"

Some questioned his approach, wondering whether he'd be able to find enough subjects who met his criteria: a cumulative college grade-point average of at least 3.0, "lengthy" records as leaders and participants in a range of student groups and enriching campus experiences (study abroad, undergraduate research, etc.), and accumulation of merit-based grants and awards, among other things.

But he had no trouble when he asked administrators and professors at several dozen predominantly white and historically black institutions for suggestions, with 219 of the 221 nominees agreeing to participate in data collection and intensive interviews. Almost to a man, Harper said, they said they'd never been asked how they had navigated their paths and what their experiences might offer to others.

Slightly more than half (118) of the participants attend selective liberal arts colleges (e.g., Amherst, Haverford, Pomona and Williams) and public and private research universities (such as Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Purdue and Michigan); about 75 attend public or private historically black institutions (places like Florida A&M, North Carolina Central, Hampton and Howard Universities), and the rest are at several comprehensive state universities, such as Cal State Long Beach and Towson University.

In many ways, they seem indistinguishable from other black men of their age (though there is no formal control group, and hence no directly comparable data, in Harper's study), in terms of their socioeconomic status, parents' educational backgrounds, etc. But the fact that a full 60 percent of them grew up in homes with two parents probably differentiates them from the norm (census data show that 35 percent of black children grow up in two-parent homes). 

Perhaps more importantly, Harper's subjects themselves said, was what their parents said and did. The "overwhelming majority" of them, he writes, said their parents considered it "non-negotiable" that they would attend college, even though almost half of the parents themselves had not.

Harper asked each of the 219 black men to talk not only about themselves but about the experiences of their three best black male childhood friends -- and these differences virtually jump off the report's pages.

"When asked what differentiated their own paths from those of their peers who were not enrolled in college, the participants almost unanimously cited parenting practices," the study states. "Their friends' parents, the achievers believed, did not consistently maintain high expectations and were not as involved in their sons' schooling. By contrast, most of the achievers' parents and family members more aggressively sought out educational resources to ensure their success -- tutoring and academic support programs, college preparatory initiatives, and summer academies and camps, to name a few."

'Mr. Morrow Moments'

Parents weren't the only supporters who pushed and encouraged them. "The participants' early schooling experiences almost always included at least one influential teacher who helped solidify their interest in going to college," often going beyond simply teaching them to help get them information or access to services that would help them prepare for college.

Many of the research subjects "considered themselves among the lucky few to have had teachers who, for some reason, thought they were worth the investment" --  and often for reasons that were unclear to them. It was not, most believed, that they were academically high-achieving; fewer than half had taken an Advanced Placement course in high school, and fewer than one in five had participated in a gifted and talented program.

"Many participants felt teachers (especially white women) were incapable of engaging meaningfully with more than one or a few black students at a time -- only these teachers' favorites received such attention," Harper writes.

One of the more vexing questions left unanswered by the report is why these students were singled out -- whether they displayed traits, such as motivation or discipline, that caught their teachers' eyes, or whether the attention they got from teachers lit a spark that inspired the students themselves.

In an interview, Harper says he suspects that "one fueled the other" -- that as "guys became the beneficiaries of certain kinds of investments, mentoring, etc., they became more driven." In other words, they had a moment like the one he had in eighth grade, when he was "at best an average student, with Bs but a lot of Cs."

Then his first black male teacher, Mr. Morrow, "saw something in me," though Harper says he isn't sure what. The teacher encouraged him to run for student council president in the middle school, and against all odds, he says, he beat a white female friend of his who was both a star student and a cheerleader. "It was a real turning point in how I began to see myself as a student, and set me on a completely different educational trajectory," Harper says.

"A lot of my achieving students had their own 'Mr. Morrow moments,' and most of them felt -- as I do -- that if those same kind of moments had happened to their cousins or friends, the same things might have happened to them."

"The participants' early schooling experiences almost always included at least one influential teacher who helped solidify their interest in going to college."
--Shaun Harper, U. of Pennsylvania

Estela Mara Bensimon, professor and co-director of the University of Southern California's Center for Urban Education, says Harper's research shows that many teachers and professors "are not sufficiently conscious about [which students] we notice and who we don't," and that -- given how powerful those signals can be -- instructors should be more purposeful about reaching out to students from a range of backgrounds.

In choosing colleges, many of the students said they had multiple options, and those that chose selective liberal arts or research institutions said they did so because they received financial aid that made that possible. Most of those at private historically black universities said they chose those institutions (often over predominantly white institutions) because of their reputations as supportive environments for black men, while many of those at public black colleges -- and comprehensive state universities -- typically applied to a small number of local or regional institutions.

Few said they got assistance (or at least helpful assistance) from their schools' guidance counselors. Significant numbers of the achieving black male students said their school counselors openly discouraged them from applying to Ivy or other elite institutions, and that they got the most help from their parents, teachers, and extended family members who had gone to college.

And because many of the students had put themselves in a good position to earn academic scholarships or other aid (like the Posse Scholars Program), or chosen their institutions with an eye to affordability -- or both -- "men in the national study attributed much of their success to being able to pursue their bachelor's degrees without the burden of financial stress," Harper writes.

Once in the college of their choice, some of Harper's pool of students benefited from summer "bridge" programs, but relatively few said they gained much from their official advisers or from formal mentorship programs in which many institutions match random professors or administrators to individual students.

Much more helpful, many said, were the "same-race peers, namely juniors and seniors, who reached out to them early in their first semester at the institution to share navigational insights and resources, connect them to powerful information networks, and introduce them to value-added engagement opportunities on campus," Harper writes.

“I started with this macho mentality that I could do everything on my own and I wasn’t going to ask for help,” the report quotes one student as saying. But he learned otherwise from older students in a discussion group established by black male students. “They told me I would really look weak if I quit college because I was too proud to ask for help. They also made sure I knew exactly where to go to get exactly what I needed to be successful. Now, I say the same things to black male freshmen when they join our group.”

The students in the Harper's study attributed much of their success in college to the fact that they were heavily engaged in "educationally purposeful" activities outside the classroom. "The men believed they earned higher grades because they had less time to waste, interacted frequently with academically driven others, and had reputations to uphold," the study says. "Moreover, establishing relationships with faculty who advised clubs and organizations in which they held membership compelled the achievers to work harder to impress those same professors when they took their classes."

This was often in contrast to some of their black male peers, who "devoted their out-of-class time to playing video games and sports, pursuing romantic relationships, and gathering socially with others in designated hangouts on campus," Harper writes.

Though they took a different approach to their academic work from some of their black male peers on campuses, the men in Harper's study were often assumed by their white counterparts to be academically underprepared -- or worse. The study quotes some of them hearing the stereotypical "The only reason you got into this university is because of affirmative action," and being congratulated on Mondays after big football or basketball victories because fellow students assumed they were athletes.

What Follows?

A flood of interesting findings -- but what are campus administrators or policy makers to do with them?

Harper's study offers a set of recommendations that might logically flow from the study's results, and many of them will sound familiar.

They include encouraging parents to "convey to black boys as early as possible that college is the most reliable pathway to success," equipping families with knowledge that college is possible (financially and otherwise), training teachers and other education professionals that they may need to take unusual steps to engage black males (and other historically underrepresented students), removing financial barriers to college, creating summer bridge programs for underrepresented groups, creating (or at least enabling) campus outlets for peers to interact and share advice, etc.

But perhaps more important than any specific policy or practice that the study might suggest, says Minor of the Southern Education Foundation, is its broader attempt to reframe how college leaders and others think about the situation of black men in higher education.

"Not many effective solutions have emerged from this myopic focus we've had on the problems and the crisis," says Minor. "If this recalibrates our vision or the ability to see a wider spectrum of African-American participation in higher education, it then helps us think different about the type of programs we advance, the type of solutions we look to."

Given the differences among institutions, putting the approach into practice will have to happen on a college-by-college basis, he says. Minor describes meeting with officials on a campus recently and asking if they knew how black men were faring in its six sections of first-year algebra. They had no idea, he notes.

"Just think what you might do if you found out that they were doing better in sections with particular faculty members or at particular times of day -- that there are situations where you might be able to foster more success," Minor says. "I can't think of a campus that doesn't have some kind of initiative about this particular population, but what I think is less tested is what creates success."

Harper himself has a simpler wish. "I would hope that institutional leaders and others feel compelled to find guys on their campuses who are like those in the report, and figure out how they successfully navigated their respective institutional contexts," he says. "I am arguing for a much more intentional institutional strategy. Black male student success ought not to be serendipitous."

Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top