Closing the Gap Between African-American Parent Perceptions and Student Achievement

05/20/2016 02:28 pm ET Updated May 21, 2017

As a father and grandfather, a college professor and president, and now as president and CEO of UNCF (the United Negro College Fund), the umbrella organization for 37 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and the nation's largest provider of college scholarships to students of color, I have attended my share of college graduation days. And what never fails to move me is the presence of so many parents and grandparents beaming with pride as their children walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.

And beam they should. Professors and teachers have played important parts in getting students to and through college. But nobody has played a longer or more important role than their parents. If only we could equip and empower more mothers and fathers to get fully behind their children's education, our college graduation rate would be much higher than it is.

Which is why everyone who wants more young people to get the college education they need--and that we as a country need them to have--should applaud the release last week of Parents 2016: Hearts and Minds of Parents in an Uncertain World, a study commissioned by Learning Heroes, a non-profit that "helps parents navigate the changes happening in classrooms across the country so they can help their children be successful in school."

Hearts and Minds dispels the widespread misconception that when students don't go to college it's because their parents don't recognize the importance of a post-secondary education. In fact, however, Hearts and Minds finds that "parents of K-8 public school students--irrespective of race, ethnicity, income level, and educational attainment--share high expectations for their children. Chief among these is that 75% of all parents and even higher proportions of African American (83 percent) and Hispanic (90 percent) parents believe that attaining a two- or four-year college degree is very important for their child."

Hearts and Minds confirms the findings in Done to Us, Not With Us: African American Perception of K-12 Education, UNCF's Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute's 2012 study of the attitudes toward college of low-income African American K-12 parents and caregivers. Our research shows that "87 percent of African American parents have high aspirations for their children and overwhelmingly want them to graduate from college," and that "74 percent of low-income parents believe it is extremely important for their children to attend and graduate from college."

What's the obstacle then? Why aren't more students getting college degrees?

Hearts and Minds identifies two major factors. One is that although parents believe that their children are mastering the subjects they need to succeed in college, the evidence of attainment tests says otherwise. Ninety percent of parents believe their children are performing at or above grade level in reading and math. But only one out of three students, and only 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively, of African American students, are actually doing so.

Here, too, Hearts and Minds confirms the findings in UNCF's Done to Us, Not With Us. "The gap between parental aspiration for their children to attend a four-year college and the reality of their academic readiness is much more troubling than parents realize," Done to Us, Not With Us reported, adding that this gap often negatively affected their sons' and daughters' ability to get into college.

And in those areas where parents are recognizing the need--paying for college, peer pressure, children's emotional health and happiness, and safe use of the Internet and social media--many feel they need more information to enable them to be effective influencers of and advocates for their children. "Fifty-nine percent of parents say they would benefit most from more information and knowledge in the area of financing college," the Hearts and Minds report found. "A notable share (52 percent) could also use tips on minimizing the stress of standardized testing. Half of all parents say they would benefit from information in dealing with peer pressure and fostering self-esteem."

In light of those parental anxieties, perhaps Hearts and Minds' most valuable contribution is its "Readiness Roadmap," an online toolkit to assist parents in helping and supporting their children.

Created by Learning Heroes with resources from Univision, National PTA, Scholastic, GreatSchools, Common Sense Media and other partners, the Readiness Roadmap provides parents with academic expectations by grade, tips on paying for college, information on emotional health and happiness, conversation guides to make the most of parent-teacher conferences and parent-child conversations, tools to help parents understand where their child might need additional support and personalized resources to meet their child's individual needs.

Learning Heroes' Parents 2016: Hearts and Minds of Parents in an Uncertain World and the Readiness Roadmap are important contributions to the growing movement to empower parents in the education of their children. UNCF's report confirms Learning Heroes' findings: parents want to guide and support their children's educational progress to and through college, but they need information about the most effective way to do so. In the Hearts and Minds study and Readiness Roadmap, they have a powerful toolkit to fulfill the role their children need them to play.

The more parents who get and use the aids Learning Heroes has just released, the more students we will see receiving their college degrees, and the more beaming parents we will see on college graduation days across the country.