We know the commonly repeated claim that there are more Black men in prison than in college isn’t true—but in 2011 Black men accounted for fewer than 6 percent of undergraduate students and 4 percent of graduate students, though they made up 8.7 percent of 18-29 year olds. Many who go to college never graduate. At a recent symposium co-sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and the Educational Testing Service on “Advancing Success for Black Men in College,” the focus was on solutions and how to get more young men to attend and graduate from college. The marvelous opening panel featured four Black men in college sharing their experiences including the opportunities that helped them most—and the advice they would give to an audience of third grade Black boys.
Shawon Jackson, a rising senior at Princeton University, was quick to credit his parents and the public boarding school he attended an hour away from his Chicago-area home for strong support in getting on the road to college. But the cost of college could have been an immediate roadblock. The whole panel agreed programs that helped them afford college made a key difference. For Shawon the QuestBridge program, which identifies talented low-income students and helps support them as they apply to top colleges and universities, made it possible for him to attend Princeton. Extra support has also given him opportunities to travel and work in Spain and Honduras: “Going to different countries allowed me to develop a different perspective, so by the time I got back to Princeton I was able to say, wow, there’s a world outside of Princeton, and there is a world outside of what I saw growing up.”
Shawon had this strong advice for young Black boys: “I would tell them that you will make it, and that education is the gateway to whatever you want it to be. I would talk about how it doesn't matter what your background was, what your parents did or did not do, or what was around your community—if you persevere and if you make education your number one priority, you can quite literally do anything that you want in this world. I would talk about how society may have one expectation for you but that you have to set your own expectations, and if you guide yourself, then you’ll be rewarded in the end.”
Javon Mullings, gave credit to another program designed to help talented students get to college and thrive. The Posse Foundation targets youth leaders from public urban high schools and helps send them to partner colleges and universities in small groups, creating a support “posse” of peers on each campus. Javon, the valedictorian of his New York high school, received a scholarship to “Posse Partner” Wheaton College in Massachusetts where he’s had great opportunities including working in a professor’s lab and a series of outside summer internships, including one at the Federal Reserve and this summer, a research position at Cornell University. Javon said: “Accumulation of knowledge is the accumulation of power, and knowledge can be acquired in multiple ways, not necessarily just in a classroom. And to what Shawon was saying earlier, the opportunities that college provides that you may not necessarily get elsewhere, like study abroad opportunities and the opportunity to meet people from various socioeconomic classes—you learn from these people, you accumulate knowledge, you accumulate power, and then you can make your dreams come true.”
A great teacher and the CDF Freedom Schools® program both made a big difference to Marvin Perry. As a fourth and fifth grader Marvin was in an all-Black male classroom, one of the first of its kind in Cleveland, with a Black male teacher who became a role model. He taught Marvin many lessons in and out of the classroom including how to tie a tie and ultimately inspired Marvin to want to become a teacher too. Attending the CDF Freedom Schools summer reading enrichment and child empowerment program also expanded Marvin’s horizons: “It made me just love to read, and it made me understand who I am and where I come from. I’m a firm believer that if you don’t know who you are, and you don’t know where you’re coming from, then how do you know where you’re going?” Marvin has a scholarship that’s allowed him to spend his first two years of college at Cuyahoga Community College and the second two at Central State University in Ohio. He had two pieces of advice for young students: “Put God over your life. That’s the first thing I would tell them. Second . . . Perseverance. No matter how many times you get beat up, just get right back up and keep fighting and keep going.”
Sixto Cancel, a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, had especially difficult challenges on his journey to college: he spent much of his childhood in the child welfare system with no family financial or emotional support to fall back on. But a financial literacy program sponsored by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative and designed to help prepare him for life on his own taught him a critical skill no one else had passed on—a framework for how to make healthy decisions. He’s continued to use its basic formula of conducting research, consulting experts and peers, and committing to a plan and executing it for all kinds of decisions in his life. Today Sixto is not only a successful college student but a national advocate and role model for many other foster care alumni. He had the last words of advice to today’s children: “If it is to be, it’s up to me. You’re going to be dealt cards and it might be very unfair. You might only have three and the guy next to you has 12. But you better play to win, and then stick to those people who are there to help you win.”
Strong programs, strong mentors, and strong mindsets helped Sixto, Marvin, Javon, and Shawon succeed. Their panel’s moderator, Illume Communications Chief of Strategy Jeff Johnson, summed their contributions up well: “If we would understand that these four young men are really a microcosm of the brilliance that’s existing all over the country, and if we would just (1) pay attention, (2) ask them to talk, (3) be quiet, (4) listen, and then (5) work, then we would really begin to use their brilliance as the mechanism and the vision to be able to change this landscape.” I join Jeff’s call for us to listen to young people rather than thinking we adults have all the answers. And I hope we will support more of the kinds of programs that worked for them to help ensure not only that many more Black and non-White and vulnerable youths go to college but that they can stay in and graduate and give back to society as they seek to do.