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A Study in Achievement

By Communities In Schools Feb. 23, 2012

Although it’s a story that rarely appears in the media, there are black male students who not only go to college, but also graduate. Enrollment statistics are alarmingly low – in 2002, black men accounted for only 4.3 percent of students enrolled in institutes of higher education – and are a clear indication there is still a serious issue of black male underachievement. But the fact that there are success stories prompted a series of questions and then a study, that ultimately shed light on what factors contribute to success in education for some black males. The study’s author, Shaun R. Harper, Ph. D., at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, hopes the results can provide some direction for what needs to be done  to improve the rate of academic success for future generations. Instead of negatively rehashing the statistics that point to low achievement and what’s not working, Harper’s study, Black Male Student Success in Higher Education, delves into and highlights the positives of what is working. Questions were reframed to emphasize success factors: How were aspirations for post-secondary education cultivated, how do black males manage to persist and earn their degrees, and what strategies worked to their success? What enables some black males to overcome significant obstacles and go on to attend and graduate from college? I was not surprised to find that a consistent theme to come out of the study echoed one of the principles of Communities In Schools. Harper’s study found that a key factor for many of the students was having a caring adult role model to encourage them in life. A teacher who went beyond typical teaching duties, a parent or other family member who presented higher education as non-negotiable, or another adult who provided the motivation to strive for academic success. One of the “Five Basics” at Communities In Schools – a set of essentials that every child needs and deserves – is a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult. Parents, teachers, mentors and tutors can set positive images and create a support system that can make all the difference in a young person’s life. In the study, Harper interviewed 219 men on 42 college and university campuses across the United States. He included historically black colleges, small liberal arts colleges, private schools and state universities. Some of the data revealed these achievers had to deal with similar circumstances as other black males: 56.7 percent of the participants grew up in low-income and working class families; 35.8 percent came from single-parent households; more than 40 percent had a parent who did not have a college degree. Yet these men, who had in some way been supported in their education, had graduated from high school and were succeeding in college. Harper contends a lot can be learned from studying black male student accomplishment. “Asking those who have been successful to talk about what helped them succeed is the most powerful recommendation I have for anyone who endeavors to improve the status of black male students,” he wrote. It may be a necessary step in the direction towards promoting academic achievement.