Stereotypes Add to Burden for Minority Male Students, Researcher Says

September 30, 2013

Rather than bemoaning how few minority male students succeed in college, admissions counselors should reach out to high-school counselors to find smart, motivated students who are flying under the radar of most selective colleges, a University of Pennsylvania researcher said on Saturday.

"If we choose to look for promising young men of color in urban contexts, we're likely to find them," Shaun R. Harper, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said during a seminar here sponsored by the Education Writers Association.

He and a team of researchers at Penn did just that in a study that culminated in a report being released on Monday.

"Succeeding in the City: A Report From the New York City Black and Latino Male High School Achievement Study" follows Mr. Harper's report last year on black male success in higher education.

He begins the latest report with a plea.

"Please stop mischaracterizing young men of color as hopeless thugs who care nothing about their education, communities, and futures," he writes. "Ways in which black and Latino male teens, especially those who reside in America's largest cities, are persistently portrayed in media and elsewhere negatively affect society's expectations of them and, at times, their expectations of themselves."

'Undermatched' Students

The Penn research team, which included Mr. Harper, a postdoctoral researcher, and 11 black and Latino male graduate students, interviewed 415 students and graduates from 40 public high schools. Ninety of them were enrolled in 44 colleges and universities, and the rest were collegebound juniors and seniors.

The 40 schools, all part of the New York City Department of Education's Expanded Success Initiative, use a variety of strategies to help black and Latino males succeed, such as starting every morning with an announcement of where individual students have been accepted to college. Most of the schools have fewer than 500 students and have disproportionate numbers of minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Three-quarters of the college students the researchers interviewed had applied only to colleges in the City University of New York and State University of New York systems, and many had applied only to those campuses even though they could have been successful at more selective institutions, Mr. Harper said.

One reason so many of the students were "undermatched," he said, was that they hadn't been exposed to other colleges.

The researchers suggest that college admissions officers reach out to counselors in predominantly minority schools much in the way they did, by asking for the names of students with grade-point averages of 3.0 and above who were active in school clubs, planned to attend college, and were academically on track to do so.

In their study, they conducted lengthy face-to-face interviews, during which they flipped what they call "deficit-oriented" questions such as "What makes young men of color so apathetic and unmotivated at school?" to questions like "What strategies engage young men of color and make them excited about learning?"

Among the factors they identified were parents who insisted their children go to college, even if they themselves had dropped out of school, and students' habit of staying indoors or at school late to avoid running into gangs.

The study was financially supported by the Open Society Foundations, a nonprofit group founded by the financier and philanthropist George Soros.

Avoiding 'Doom and Gloom'

While "doom and gloom statistics" perpetuate unfair stereotypes, they still need to be discussed, the report notes. It does so in two of its 40 pages. For instance,

  • Nationally, 52 percent of black and 58 percent of Latino males graduated in four years from high schools where they started as ninth graders. That compares to 78 percent of their white male classmates.
  • In a recent study, half of black and 30 percent of Latino male students in Grades 6 to 12 had been suspended from school, compared with 21 percent of their white male peers.
  • Black men's college-completion rates are the lowest among both sexes and all racial groups across higher education.

Such statistics, when repeated too often, help perpetuate images of young minority men who are more interested in guns, gangs, and fast money than doing well in school, the report says.

"This caricature of young men of color in urban contexts is both pervasive and longstanding. It also is one-sided, terribly racist, and far from universal," the report states. Instead of repeatedly asking why 42 percent of male Latino students failed to complete college in four years, the researchers sought factors that helped 58 percent of them graduate on time.