Young, Black Men Succeeding in Higher Education: New Research

A new report by University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Shaun Harper offers new insight into young, black men who are succeeding in higher education. While the overall trends for black men in higher education are not good – low enrollment and high attrition – Harper wanted to understand how those that succeed do so.

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Harper conducted two- to three-hour individual interviews with most of the 219 students on their respective campuses. The participants were enrolled in 42 colleges and universities in 20 states. The respective schools fall into six categories, including historically Black public institutions, historically Black private institutions and highly selective, private – and historically white – research universities. Harper hoped that his research would provide solutions to raising low Black male college enrollment and completion rates.

What differentiates those that succeed, the study suggests, is a complicated mix of mostly external factors that appeared to give them a sense that college was not only possible but expected, and that engaged them academically. Among the key influences:

  • at least one K-12 teacher who took a personal interest in their academic and personal future;
  • adequate financial support to pay for college;
  • a transition to college in which high expectations were set for them as much if not more by influential black male juniors and seniors at their institutions.

The  impression left by Harper’s study is that it’s often “serendipitous” when young, black men succeed in college – a caring teacher notices them, they get a good financial aid package, there are peers that show them the way.  But, Harper argues that it’s important to focus on the how and why of success, rather than just the litany of dismal studies about academic failure, in order to find a way to help more young, black men get into and finish college. In an interview, Harper said: “I am arguing for a much more intentional institutional strategy. Black male student success ought not to be serendipitous.”

The National Black Male College Achievement Study is the largest-ever empirical study of Black male undergraduates, and you can find the full report here.