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Shaun Harper

University of Pennsylvania

BOSTON -- Shaun Harper started his presentation at a meeting here Saturday with a slide showing interior photographs of two high schools. One showed students walking through metal detectors. The other showed a row of college banners intended to encourage students to think about postsecondary education.

He asked attendees at a meeting of the Education Writers Association to identify which one was taken during his research on the way some black and Latino male students succeed in New York City high schools. The answer was that both photos were from the study, and Harper's point was that there are scenes in New York City high schools that reflect conventional wisdom about the state of urban education, and scenes that contradict the conventional wisdom. (There are plenty of high schools without metal detectors at all, he noted.)

The slide was the set-up for Harper to preview research findings he'll be releasing formally today about the black and Latino male students who succeed in New York City high schools (and he said there was no reason to believe similar qualities don't help similar students in other urban high schools). The study wasn't of elite charter schools or wealthier parts of the city, but of students who had achieved academic success in regular high schools. Harper found not only that such students exist (no surprise to him, but perhaps to those who lament the dearth of such students) but that many of them have no idea that they would be attractive candidates for admission to some of the most elite colleges in the United States.

Harper -- director of the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania -- attracted considerable attention last year for a study in which he identified successful black male college students and examined the factors that led to their success. This new study is in a way the flip side of that research -- as his focus was on students in New York City high schools who could succeed in college (although he also included a group of New York City high school graduates who were in college for comparison purposes).

An overall theme of the work is that there are many minority male students who are succeeding academically, but are doing so off the beaten track of colleges to magnet schools or the suburbs. Harper started his research by going to principals of 40 high schools -- with a mix of academic records and no tilt toward high performing schools, although a disproportionate number were smaller in population size than average  -- to ask for help identifying talented black and Latino male students. The students needed to have grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher, to have taken college preparatory courses, to be involved in multiple school clubs and activities, and to be interested in going to college.

Reading the established "narrative" about urban high schools, "we could easily believe that there were no young men who would fit this profile," when in fact in all of the high schools, the principals were easily able to identify many who fit the profile. Harper then conducted in-depth interviews with 325 of those students, along with 90 black and Latino male graduates of these high schools who were now in college.

He wanted to identify the qualities that left the high school students ready for college. Much of the demographic information about the students suggests reasons why the odds were against their going to college. Two-thirds of the students' mothers and three-quarters of their fathers lacked any college degree. One quarter were low-income and half were from working-class families. Five percent had experienced homelessness. And all were male at a time when female enrollments are outpacing male enrollments, especially among underrepresented minority students. One statistic Harper said may surprise some is that 45 percent of these students had family structures with two parents. While a majority thus were in single-parent homes, a significant minority had support from two parents.

But what were the common characteristics that seemed to propel these students to succeed? Among them:

  • Parental value of education. Many spoke of parents who related their own lack of education to their lack of money, and told their children they wanted better options for them.
  • High expectations. The report says that "almost all" of the students in the study "remember being thought of as smart and capable when they were young boys."
  • Learning to avoid neighborhood danger. Those who lived in unsafe neighborhoods reported parents who kept them inside whenever possible. Likewise, many of the students reported spending after-school hours in school buildings, in settings where they could study and also socialize in safer environments than were available to them near their homes.
  • Avoiding gang recruitment. Many said that by becoming known as smart, and by having parents who didn't let them spend time outdoors, they weren't recruited into gangs.
  • Teachers who cared and inspired. Harper asked the students to name and describe favorite high school teachers, and he noted that none of them had difficulty doing so, describing challenging teachers who knew and cared about them. He said that the teachers of these students are working in ways counter to the image of out-of-control urban schools.
  • Reinforcement of college-going culture. One student noted that, at his high school, every day that a student was accepted at a college, the entire school was told about this over the public address system. While college-going might not be the norm for his socioeconomic group, he came to think of college-going as the norm from hearing these messages over and over again.

Generally, the descriptions of the high school students left cause for optimism. A combination of the right encouragement from parents and teachers makes a difference, the interviews suggest. The portion of the report on college students raised more questions -- and perhaps more challenges for faculty members and administrators in higher education.

Many of the students reported that they did not have the kind of nurturing relationships with professors that had made a big difference to them in high school. The college students were asked questions such as "tell me a bit about your relationships with your professors," and many of the students were "perplexed" by the question, the report says. "[S]ome even asked, 'What do you mean by relationship?' " the report said. "It was clear that deep connections had not been established and interactions were almost entirely confined to the classroom. 'I honestly don’t even remember any of the professors’ names I took last semester,' one student confessed."

The study also reinforces recent reports -- and in particular the work of Caroline M. Hoxby of Stanford University, and Christopher Avery of Harvard University -- about "undermatching" by talented, low-income students. Hoxby and Avery found that a majority of such students do not apply to a single highly competitive college, even though many of these students could get into such institutions and be awarded full scholarships.

In Harper's study, more than three-fourths of students applied only to colleges in the State University of New York and City University of New York Systems. He said that, for many of these students, there were good options in those systems, but that many who had the grades and test scores to attend more elite institutions -- including those that have the most generous financial aid packages in the country -- than those they ended up at never applied.

Students "indicated their counselors only promoted in-state public postsecondary options," the report says. "Some even remembered counselors advising them against applying to certain institutions. 'She told me that I probably wouldn’t get into the University of Virginia, so I didn’t even apply there.' We heard similar stories in our interviews with high school seniors."

In his presentation here, Harper said that he was not blaming the counselors, many of whom he said have far more students to advise than they can possible handle. He said that he believes that many of the counselors have adopted the attitude of trying to be sure that every student who can go to college does so, and so their emphasis is on making sure everyone applies, not on promoting the most ambitious options for talented students. (And the report notes that the same students who spoke of counselors pushing only limited options did in fact stress the importance of going to college and offered a lot of help on the process.)

But the undermatching issue is real and needs more attention, Harper said here. He described one high school senior interviewed whom he said was arguably the smartest of all of those in the New York City study.

Harper asked this student where he was applying to college, and was told of plans to seek admission to only one institution: Pennsylvania State University at Altoona. "It would be the worst undermatching ever if this kid goes to a regional campus of Penn State," Harper said. While stressing that there are many students for whom regional public colleges and universities are good choices, he said that higher education leaders need to focus more attention on recruiting students like those he interviewed, and in promoting better support for counseling services so such students get good advice.

"This kid could go to Harvard," Harper said. "I'm not going to let him" apply only to Altoona, he added.

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