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Black Male Student Success in Higher Education: Implications for HBCU’s

Shaun Harper, my colleague here at the University of Pennsylvania, recently released a major report on black male student success. He has been working on this report and collecting data on black male achievers for years now and this report is the most comprehensive information we have on the topic. Harper pushes back against the deficit model typically applied to black men and most minorities and shows us how these young men achieve success academically, socially, and personally. The report should be read by faculty and administrators across the country and should also be given to students as it offers a sense of inspiration and empowerment.

As someone interested in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and student success at these institutions, I read the report with an eye toward what it could tell us about black male success at HBCU’s. The black men featured in the report shed light on college student choice, the role of guidance counselors in their decisions and their social experiences on black college campuses.

Critics of HBCU’s often think that students who enroll in them do so because HBCU’s are their only option. The black men in Harper’s report applied because of the longstanding reputations of HBCU’s for providing supportive educational environments to black students. Knowledge of these institutions was passed on to them by parents and family members. Specifically, those black men who attended private HBCU’s applied to a range of institutions and specifically chose to attend HBCU’s. Of note, those black men who attended public HBCU’s applied to mainly public HBCU’s in their state.

Of concern, when these black men were admitted to predominantly white institutions, their guidance counselors tried to convince them that attending a black college—whether public or private—would disadvantage them in significant ways. According to the black men in Harper’s study, the majority of the guidance counselors were white. According to my research, guidance counselors in the North regardless of race tend to steer students away from HBCU’s due to lack of knowledge about HBCU’s and also negative perceptions. African American guidance counselors in the South are much more familiar with HBCU’s—many having parents who have attended them—and are more likely to recommend them to students.

Talking specifically about their experiences on HBCU campuses, the black men in Harper’s study valued the campus environment. However, both the heterosexual and openly gay participants thought there were substantial social risks connected to being gay and being “out” on HBCU campuses. The majority of participants felt other African American students would ostracize them, vote against them in campus elections, or discredit their leadership ability. Although these fears were expressed by participants attending both majority institutions and HBCU’s, they were most pronounced on HBCU campuses. Research tells us that gay and lesbian students on HBCU campuses have fewer allies and less access to services aimed at helping them explore their identities. Of note, some HBCU’s are taking steps to change attitudes and services on their campuses. Spelman College, for example, held a symposium related to LGBT issues last year. The Spelman leadership is leading the way in terms of opening up conversations about gay and lesbian students and their experiences on HBCU campuses.

Overall, Harper’s report is helpful to administrators on both majority and HBCU campuses. The young men who participated in the study offer perspectives—almost a road map—to increasing student success for black men. Harper shows us that we know what to do to support success. We just need to do it and do it with sincerity.

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