By Anthony L. Hubbard

Community-Based Approaches and Strategies for African American Male Development

In July 2012, Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke about the statistics pertaining to college attainment by young Americans during the period 2009- 20101. From its position at World No: 1 slot in terms of the percentage of adults with college degree, America has sadly slipped down quite significantly. In mid 2012, the country stood at 16th place in this list. It was at this time that President Obama called for effective measures to ensure that 60% of American adults, aged 25 to 34, should be college educated by the end of the decade, i.e.: 2020.

A tall order indeed, but one that may become reality provided the federal government along with states, educational institutions and many others work in tandem with this single goal in mind. Progress has been made but budget cuts and rising education costs are posing some serious obstacles to the achievement of this goal.

The Significance of the State of African- American Education

According to statistical data made available by the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage distribution of degrees conferred stood at 7.9% for Black males. It is an accepted fact by some that young adults of African American descent often appear to lag behind when it comes to academic achievements. This is even more evident among African American males who often occupy a much smaller percentage among those who have achieved higher education or even completed basic high school education.

While the average number of African Americans to achieve Bachelor’s degree has increased by 2 percentage point since the year 2000, this is still a substantial 10% lower than the national average2. In fact according to the 2011 American Community Survey based on U.S. census bureau records, 17.4% African Americans lack even a high school diploma, 31.2% have a high school diploma (inclusive of GED), 32.7% hold a college or associate degree while 18.7% hold a Bachelor’s degree or higher qualification. Even among the African American population, males consistently fare poorly when compared with their female counterparts. In 2011, 16% of African American males held a Bachelor’s degree or higher as compared to 20% of females. Even college or associate degree achievement figures are skewed in favor of women with 35% holding these qualifications as opposed to 30% of men.

It is also a well-accepted fact by others that the drop-out rate from schooling is highest among African Americans. It is the boys of color who are least likely to continue education until they achieve a college degree. In effect, among the general public, it is this segment of students who are most likely to fill the ranks of Americans who lack higher education.

These statistics/ facts make two points very evident:

  1. African Americans need to be encouraged, supported and actively assisted towards achieving better educational qualifications if America is to achieve its 2020 College Attainment goal.
  2. Special focus needs to be trained on African American males since this category of students is trailing behind even within this ethnic group.

There are several challenges that stand in the way of these actions. Many questions arise- are these young people ready for academic achievement? Do they have the potential? Is it financially viable? And so on.

Mere Academic Readiness is not Enough

There are several obstacles faced by African American students that hinder their ability to progress academically. Even if they are academically ready and have the capability and potential to achieve great success with higher education, these obstacles prevent them from even enrolling in educational programs. To give a few examples, many boys of color lack strong male role models at home. A good number of them may be first generation high school or college graduates, which means they are unlikely to get help at home with their school work if it becomes necessary. Costs may also be a concern since a significant percentage of African American boys come from poor families where spending money on higher education may not be viewed as priority expenditure.

In short, even if the student himself is keen to achieve higher education and has the potential for it, many other factors beyond his control may impede his progress and dampen his enthusiasm. There is a great need for influences/forces outside the student’s family to intervene and support his aspirations to gain a college education.

Gaining Higher Education in face of Criticism

Another critical aspect to consider is that there is formidable resistance both in society and in political circles towards supporting young men of color in their aspirations for higher education. The opposition party has already made its views known in this regard. They believe that funding programs to work with students who ‘have potential for achievement’ is a waste of money.

In startling contrast are the facts highlighted by YouthBuild, USA, a program that came into being in 1988 with the mission of ‘unleashing the intelligence and positive energy of low income youth to rebuild their communities and their lives’. This program underlines how the government can reduce cost, bridge budgetary gaps and also cut down crime rates by investing in the initiatives promoted by YouthBuild.

The organization outlines how demand from enthusiastic youth overwhelms the funding made available for their endeavors by two to ten times showing that interest in such programs is very much there. The program’s website states that a high return on investment in such programs is well within reasonable expectations. Independent research has revealed that the programs yield a heartening $7.80 dollars Return on Investment (ROI) per dollar expenditure on YouthBuild Students. A Minimum ROI of $10.80 and a maximum of $43.90 per dollar may be achieved on court involved youth under these initiatives. Clearly there is a way to bring about a significant change in the ‘high school dropout to prison’ pipeline which now deters many politicians and members of the general public from investing funds and energy in underprivileged youth of America.

The Role of the Community in Achieving 2020 College Education Goals

There is a need for a holistic approach in dealing with this situation since academic potential is not the only criterion that is of concern here. Also, it is not enough if only educational institutions transform into nurturing environments for young men of color. The community as a whole has to be involved in this endeavor. The school does play an important part here but so does the family, the Church, the neighborhood and society at large. When the young adult receives encouragement and support from all these directions, he is enabled and empowered to invest his own will into gaining higher education.

The primary advantage of such a community-based effort is that the success of each young man becomes the success of the community as well. The society feels responsibility for these young men which means that there is no more doubt about the viability of investing in initiatives designed to support and aid such deserving candidates.

Leadership Development Programs can Make a Significant Difference

One excellent way for the community to influence young men of color in a positive way is through leadership development programs. When these programs address physical and psychological empowerment, they are particularly effective in giving students many essential skills that are often missing from school curriculum. Through these programs, mentoring relationships can be developed with students, giving them healthy, successful and desirable role models to emulate.

These healthy relationships often take the place of the student’s imperfect family ties and give him a nurturing and supportive environment where education gets pride of place. Since relationships influence the young mind to a large extent, mentors can actually shape their protégé’s attitude, dreams, aspirations and efforts so that energy is expended in a constructive manner. These relationships need to be long-term to have the most effect on the student and to keep him motivated until he completes college education.

Exposure to Life Skills

In addition to building the student’s confidence

in his own abilities, these mentoring relationships also serve another critical purpose. They help the young man of color develop soft skills that are essential for professional and personal success yet are often ignored in structured education courses. Summer courses/employment also help immensely in nurturing these soft skills and preparing the young man of color for the future.

The immense success of programs like YouthBuild may be attributed to the fact they also train the young subjects in these skills. This helps him blend into society perfectly, interact with peers and others successfully and present his best qualities to the world at large. In effect, the objective of these programs is not limited to helping the student succeed with a specific examination or test. They empower him to succeed with every challenge that he may face in life by equipping him with the basic tools he needs to acquire the skills and the connections he may need to tackle them.

In effect, these young men are trained to become lifelong learners so that they can quickly assimilate the information and skills that will take them further along the path in their careers or in their personal lives. As a result these young men are not only transformed into academically accomplished men but also good, responsible citizens of the nation. This ability to hone their skills in a self-sufficient manner gives them the confidence to constantly raise the bar on their own goals and to stay motivated in their efforts to achieve new heights.

Mentors must always remember that even a single person can bring about a life-changing transformation in a student. The mentor wields great power and when used responsibly, this power can light up a young man’s life.

The Influence of Successful Peers

Peer pressure is a powerful force but it is always associated with negative influences. By wielding peer pressure to impart the right influences, young men of color can be encouraged to seek higher education. One of the easiest ways to do this is to have young men of color who are attending college to interact with their younger counterparts. Many first generation students find it difficult to wend their way through the formalities that clutter up the path to college education.

Those who are already in college can help younger students understand processes so that much of the stress and anxiety related to matriculation are eliminated. Bridge programming that tells the student exactly what he should do to get his college education plays a key role in helping students. In fact, such guidance/primer programs can take place over summer holidays to ensure that the student has a very good idea of what he should do to get his college education even before he has completed high school. This makes the process less intimidating.

To ensure that such bridge programs are successful it is critical that they are designed in alignment with various college schedules. Timeliness and accuracy of facts is a critical aspect here since the young men of color will tend to rely entirely on these programs for information about colleges and their various course offerings.

A Supportive Atmosphere at School and Home

Of course, all of these community efforts need to be supported at home and at school. If the student is constantly branded as an underachiever at school, he does not develop interest in education. Teachers should make a special effort to ensure that all students, irrespective of color or ethnic background get the same impetus to gain academic proficiency. In addition, for students who lack support at home, special initiatives need to be taken to impress upon them the importance of being educated. Support has to be given so that African-American males can pull themselves up to be on par with other students in the classroom.

Family members play a key role in exposing the student to the importance of education. In fact, supportive parents can overshadow the bad influence of other relatives who are not schooled and who do not believe that education is critical.

College education is for all and it is up to the school and the family members of the young men of color to motivate them towards this goal. High standards need to be set for young men of color and a higher degree of support has to be given to them so that they can reach these standards.

A transformation in the mindset of politicians, the general public and people of color, in particular needs to come about. The attitude that higher education is optional needs to be replaced with the firm conviction that there is no excuse to ignore education. Proper education and professional college training are essential to stay competitive in the world today and this is what each young man of color needs to understand.