Men Struggling to Finish at Black Colleges

AP, March 28, 2009

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An Associated Press analysis of government data on the 83 federally designated four-year HBCUs shows just 37 percent of their black students finish a degree within six years. That’s 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for black students.

One major reason: the struggles of black men. Just 29 percent of HBCU males complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, the AP found.

A few HBCUs, like Howard and all-female Spelman, have much higher graduation rates, exceeding the national averages for both black and white students. But others are clustered among the worst-performing colleges in the country. At 38 HBCUs, fewer than one in four men who started in 2001 had completed a bachelor’s degree by 2007, the data show. At Texas Southern, Voorhees, Edward Waters and Miles College, the figure was under 10 percent.

To be sure, women are outperforming men across education, and many non-HBCUs struggle with low graduation rates. And the rates don’t account for students who transfer or take more than six years, which may be more common at HBCUs than at other schools.

Broad consequences

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Still, HBCUs’ low completion rates, especially for men, have broad consequences, on and off campus. Women account for more than 61 percent of HBCU students, the AP found. They have unprecedented leadership opportunities, but also pay a price–in everything from one-sided classroom discussions to competition for dates.

HBCUs educate only one-quarter of black college students, but produce an outsized number of future black graduate students and leaders. That group is distinctly female; HBCUs award twice as many degrees to women as to men.

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HBCUs receive more than half their revenue from government. There is growing frustration with the waste of money–for students and taxpayers–when students have nothing to show for their time in college. President Barack Obama wants to return the United States to the top rank of college attainment by 2020. That will never happen if the colleges that do the heavy lifting of educating disadvantaged groups don’t perform better.

Even some within the tight-knit HBCU community say the schools bear some responsibility. They say too many HBCUs have grown content offering students a chance at college, but resisting the hard work to get them through.

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‘Big Man on Campus’

Glancing around her classes at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis and in the stands at basketball games, sophomore Velma Maclin has noticed something odd. Most of the so-called “Big Men on Campus” are women.

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On 17 HBCU campuses there are two women for every man. At a few, the ratio is three-to-one.

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It sounds like easy living for men at HBCUs, and some joke about the advantages.

“You have so many beautiful women around you (that) you get to see and so many to pick from. The net is real wide,” laughed Eric Jefferson, a senior at North Carolina Central University in Durham, which is two-thirds women.

But while HBCU women are doing relatively well, many note the lack of gender diversity in their classes. The gender gap also weighs heavily on social life.

For many HBCU women, said Monet Phillips, an N.C. Central senior, the feeling is: “Even though that I’m the Monday woman, I’m going to be the best Monday woman so that when he’s with the Tuesday woman or the Wednesday woman then he’ll be thinking of me.”

Money matters

Like their counterparts at any college, HBCU women enjoy rewarding, lifelong friendships. But the competition for men can sometimes strain.

“It’s sad to say, but in the African-American community, it’s hard enough for women to get along without the issue of men,” said Bridgette Alexis, a LeMoyne-Owen freshman from Springfield, Mass. “You throw a small percentage of guys into the picture, and women who are looking and hoping to have boyfriends and relationships, and there’s not enough for everybody to have one. So that just makes the situation worse.”

Why do so many men drop out? Money is the reason you hear most. More than six in 10 students at the HBCUs the AP analyzed get Pell Grants, which go mostly to students from families earning under $30,000.

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At Edward Waters, virtually every student takes developmental courses–essentially, to finish the high school education they never fully received. Only then can they start progressing toward a college degree.

Cultural factors

To explain the particular struggles of men, educators point to a range of cultural factors that affect black men everywhere, but which are especially visible at HBCUs.

Men have fewer role models, and also seem to think they have more opportunities without a degree. Educators also describe a constant battle against two poisonous ideas: that black men can’t succeed, or that if they do they are somehow less than genuine.

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‘Urgency varies’

UNCF, the United Negro College Fund, which represents 39 private HBCUs, said on its Web site the “average graduation rate at HBCU(s) is higher than the average graduation rate for African-Americans at majority institutions”–a claim that is contradicted, both for HBCUs and UNCF members, by the AP’s findings.

After inquiries from the AP, the organization removed that statement.

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