Walter Fortson never expected to finish college, especially as inmate 819161D at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, in Hunterdon County, N.J. A few years ago, he chose to be a crack dealer to support his family and his reckless spending habits. He thought he was too smart to get caught, until one day in 2008 when he made a bad move.
He was a 25-year-old black male driving through an Atlantic City public-housing project in an expensive red Chevrolet Suburban with gleaming chrome hubcaps and out-of-state tags. Thinking he looked suspicious, police officers pulled him over and found crack cocaine, marijuana, and two handguns in the SUV. One officer pointed a gun at his head, he recalls, while the other handcuffed him and said, "You know that your life is over, huh?"
Mr. Fortson believed him. "To be a black male convicted felon, I thought my life was over," he says.
Today, though, Mr. Fortson is an honor student in his senior year at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. While serving part of a six-year sentence for drugs and weapons offenses, he met a Rutgers historian who tutors inmates and runs a re-entry program that helps felons go from prison to college. That associate professor, Donald Roden, helped him through the admissions process after he was released early from prison.
Mr. Fortson is a rarity in higher education, for reasons that have to do with race, economics, expectations, and criminal-justice practices. As one of many young black men with a criminal history, he has been given a second chance. He is an exception to a rule which seems to dictate that punishment for a crime does not end when a felon leaves prison. A criminal conviction often creates barriers to voting, employment, and housing, and forecloses opportunities to attend college.
By enrolling in a four-year college, Mr. Fortson is also defying higher education's gender gap, which touches all races and ethnic groups but is widest among black students. Black women earn almost twice as many degrees—at every level—as black men.
According to a recent report, "Challenging the Status Quo," by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and a group of scholars, more black men attend college than is commonly believed. Black men made up 5.5 percent of all college students ages 18 and older in 2010, a number proportional to the population of adult black males in the United States, the report notes. More than 40 percent of black male students attended community colleges, and 11 percent were enrolled at for-profit institutions. More were enrolled at the University of Phoenix than at any other institution, according to the report.
But while black men are going to college, they're not graduating in high numbers. Only 16 percent went on to complete degrees, compared with 20 percent of black women and 32 percent of white men, according to the report. In 2010, men earned 34 percent of the bachelor's degrees and 35 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded to blacks, according to data from the U.S. Education Department. Among whites, men earned 44 percent of bachelor's degrees and just under half of doctoral degrees.
Recent discussions of the black gender gap in higher education invariably point to the incarceration of black men as a major contributing factor. Experts say they cannot provide data on how much the so-called school-to-prison pipeline affects black male enrollment, but they say it cannot be overlooked. They also say it is erroneous to assume that these young men were headed to college in the first place.
"What is sometimes missing in the debates about the prison pipeline are the nuances," says Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010). "School-to-prison masks the sense in the black public sphere that many of those kids would not be going to college."
For more than a decade, people have been publicly saying that there are more black men in prison than in college. (While running for president, then-Senator Barack Obama repeated the claim often.) But that statement has not been true for years. Some experts say it's time to retire it, since such rhetoric undermines strategies to prepare, recruit, and retain black men in college.
The comparison of the number of black men in prison and in college became prominent in 2000, when a report from the Justice Policy Institute, titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms?," found that more black men were in the penal system than were enrolled in higher education. Statistics from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Education Department show that in 2000, there were 829,200 black males in prison or jail and 717,491 in college. The justice institute's report attributed the disparity to increased state investment in corrections and decreased support for higher education during the 1980s and 1990s.
The stereotype is that black boys want to play ball or be a rap artists. "They don't think they need a degree to achieve."
A turning point occurred in 2002, when the number of black men attending college started to outnumber those behind bars. Enrollment has continued to increase, with almost twice as many black men attending college in 2010—1.34 million—than a decade earlier. (The number in confinement, 844,600, was slightly higher than a decade earlier.)
Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, says the U.S. incarceration rate is disproportionately high among young black men who were born since the mid-1970s and have no more than a high-school education. Her research has shown that over the past 35 years, more policing, prosecution, and sentencing for drug offenses have meant that it is "more common for black men to go to prison than to finish college." Before they arrive on campus, they are more likely to have lived in poverty and attended inferior schools, while lacking advantages such as advanced courses and test-prep classes.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union have found that growing numbers of school districts are using police officers to patrol public schools. The majority of children in those schools who are arrested, some as young as age 5, are black or Hispanic, and their offenses are for such nonviolent infractions as throwing a tantrum, those groups say.
What's more, critics of zero-tolerance school-discipline policies believe that high-stakes testing also provides an incentive to push out low-performing students to raise overall test scores. According to the CBC report, 84 percent of black public-school students, compared with 66 percent of whites, live in states that require high-stakes testing. The ACLU found that some schools use "selective discipline" to keep low-performing students out of school during testing days.
Ms. Pettit believes that such policies prepare children better for prison than for college. "When they don't do well in school, there aren't many opportunities for them," she says. "When they can't compete, the criminal-justice system absorbs them."
Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides free education and social services to poor residents of the Manhattan neighborhood, says, "People are just starting to appreciate just how devastating the school-to-prison pipeline has been on black males. We are talking about a national catastrophe, and the evidence is showing up in college-acceptance and -completion rates.
"Yes, there are gender differences between white men and women, but when you look at blacks it's a whole different story. It's not just academic and social—an entire group has been devastated by police practices and criminal-justice policies in this country. You have to really look at the challenges these kids face in schools. These young people are criminalized before they've done anything wrong."
Even if the disparate rates of expulsions and suspensions of black and Hispanic students, as documented in more than a few studies, don't always result in arrests or incarceration, the students lose time out of school, reducing their chances of going to college.
When a suburban white kid acts out, people say, 'Oh, boys will be boys,'" says Maurice Green, a doctoral candidate in criminal justice at City University of New York and executive director of the International Black Doctoral Network Association. "They are allowed to grow out of those immature and deviant behaviors like smoking weed or getting into fights. But in urban areas, the penalty for those infractions is quite severe. They get expelled, and the expectation of being a bad child continues."
Another factor contributing to the gender imbalance among blacks enrolled in college is the high-school-dropout rate. A new report from the Schott Foundation for Public Education says that just 52 percent of black men graduate from high school in four years, compared with 78 percent of white men.
Financial realities, too, play a major role, says Ivory A. Toldson, an associate professor in the School of Education at Howard University. Some black men might actually be making a shrewd decision in not going to college, he says. Instead they land jobs as truck drivers, store managers, or construction workers. "A lot of the black men we are losing are not the ones going to prison," Mr. Toldson says. "They're not hanging around with the wrong crowd. They're not being arrested. They just can't afford to go to college, and they can't take risks with their money."
When black men do get to college—particularly in predominantly white institutions—they often have to grapple with issues of racism, financial strain, lack of mentors and role models, disengagement, and isolation. Some may not see college as relevant, especially since the economic downturn and corresponding decrease in available financial aid.
Is the focus on the lack of black men in academe shifting focus from the challenges faced by black women?
Lori Patton Davis, an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, objects to the ways in which the discussion tends to focus overwhelmingly on the problems of black men. Because black women fare better statistically in terms of college education, a dominant discourse has emerged that renders them and their college experiences invisible, she says. She wonders why black men are most often compared with black women rather than with their male peers in other groups. Such comparisons, she maintains, might reveal other ways of examining black men in college and addressing the larger gender issues regarding men in college.
"As the literature positions black men as disappearing from the educational pipeline, black women are rarely even acknowledged as part of the pipeline," she says, "and when they are, their experiences are used to make a point about black men."
People should be asking a different set of questions, Ms. Patton Davis argues: "If black women fare better than black men, what's prompting that? What can we learn about the experiences of black women that can inform how black men are served? What are the implications for black women's experiences, with so few black men in college?"
Despite recent reports that black women are becoming a "new model minority" and have reached societal peaks to which black men might aspire, a closer look at what's happening to black women in traditional academic fields might reveal a different story, says Ms. Patton Davis. Most of those women, she notes, are in "feminized" humanities fields, like English and foreign languages, and virtually nonexistent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas, which means they make less money when they graduate. She also points out that in any given year, more black women earn degrees from online, for-profit institutions than from all historically black colleges and universities combined.
"Does it matter," she asks, "that black women get more college degrees than black men, statistically speaking, if they still do so in a male-dominated society that tends to ignore them?"
Mr. Green, of the black doctoral association, thinks that for all the data on black men and college, not much attention is given to helping young black men understand how to prepare for college. Part of the problem, he says, is that there is a stereotype that black boys have aspirations that aren't tied to a college degree: "They want to play basketball or football or become rap artists. They don't think they need a degree to achieve."
And for students with criminal records, like Mr. Fortson, there are special challenges. The college application, for instance, might present a barrier to an aspiring student with a criminal record. As part of the admissions process at Rutgers, Mr. Fortson, who had attended Temple University for one year and dropped out before his arrest, was required to fill out a conviction statement. It made him feel as if he were still serving time.
"They wanted to know the specific details about my crime," he says. "I didn't like doing it. I felt like I had actively tried to move on with my life. I knew I never wanted to return to prison."
Although Rutgers and some other colleges, including Bard College, City College of New York, and San Francisco State University, have re-entry programs for ex-felons, the psychological effects of the permanent mark of a criminal past might prevent some ex-convicts from pursuing higher education, even when it's made available.
Mr. Fortson is thriving at Rutgers these days, with a 3.7 GPA. He's majoring in exercise physiology and giving speeches about his journey from cellblock to campus. He recently became the first convicted felon to be named a Truman Scholar, a national award that carries a $30,000 scholarship to help pay for graduate school. He hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in exercise physiology. His ultimate goal is to work at a think tank on criminal-justice policy and incarceration.
Mr. Fortson knows he got a lucky break and says there are legions more out there like him who need somebody simply to give them a chance, to do more than see a box on an application that says, in effect, "Yes, I've been convicted of a crime."
"I want people to know that I am not an aberration or an anomaly," Mr. Fortson says. "Those of us with criminal pasts who are now in college are doing great things. I just wish more universities would embrace us."