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Why All African American Males Should Go to College, But Probably Won’t

By Bryant T. Marks, Ph.D. | 3/27/2014, 4:54 p.m.

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Bryant T. Marks, Ph.D., executive director, The Morehouse Research Institute on the African American Male Associate Professor, Dept. of Psychology, Morehouse College.

The statistics are well-known, but are worth providing: African Americans, especially males, are trailing behind their peers in college attendance. Among Americans 25 years old and over, 22 percent of African Americans have at least a four-year college degree compared to 32 percent of white Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Furthermore, of the degrees awarded to African Americans in 2010, roughly seven in ten associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and doctoral (Ph.D. and Ed.D.) and professional (medical, dental, law) degrees were awarded to African-American women, national education statistics show.

Not only is there a racial achievement gap between African Americans and white Americans, there is a gender achievement gap among African Americans. President Obama’s recently launched “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative is shining a spotlight on the academic and life outcomes of males of color with an emphasis on African-American and Hispanic males. In addition to raising awareness of the challenges faced by young black and brown males that undermine their quality of life, the initiative is also designed to identity, promote, and scale-up solutions to these challenges.

I have studied African-American academic achievement for 20 years and have taught thousands of African-American male students, and I can say with the ultimate confidence, that education can completely transform the lives of these young men and break the cycle of poverty that swirls around many of them. For a variety of reasons including enhanced lifetime earnings, steady employment, and better mental and physical health, a college degree is something that will benefit the vast majority of African-American males. But with slightly less than 20 percent of African-American adult males holding a bachelor’s degree (about 23 percent of African-American females and about 32 percent of white American males, according to the U.S. Census), African-American males are the least likely to experience these benefits.

In attempting to rationalize why many African-American males do not enroll or graduate from college, I have heard elected officials, parents, teachers, principals and many others say, “college is not for everyone.”

College is not for everyone? Really?

My question then becomes, what is the basis for that statement? Is there a gene in African-American males’ DNA marked “not-going-to-college?” Is a college degree part of every other ethnic/gender group’s destiny, but not so much among African-American males? Saying that college is not “for” everyone is very different than saying that someone is not ready or prepared for college. Another perspective on college not being for everyone suggests that not all jobs or careers require a college degree, and that African-American males can pursue a trade such as finding a job as a mechanic, a plumber, as a professional athlete, an entertainer or other alternatives.

Pursuing a trade is fine, if and only if, it is someone’s choice among several options rather than merely accepting what is available given the employment limitations of a high school diploma (or less). Engaging in sports and entertainment at the professional level, while highly lucrative for a very small number of people is extremely unlikely for the masses of prospective African-American males. How about we make sure that all African-American males are college-ready, then let them choose to apply to college, enter the workforce, or pursue professional sports or entertainment?