The Sky is Falling on Black Men?? Pt.1 Drop Out Rates and Graduation Rates

A Black male college grad, and a future Black male college grad.

So one of the readers over at my blog (Sammy) sent me a link to a year long series in the Washington Post about the status of Black men. Here’s the quote from the first two paragraphs:

“What does it mean to be a black man? Imagine three African American boys, kindergartners who are largely alike in intelligence, talent and character, whose potential seems limitless. According to a wealth of statistics and academic studies, in just over a decade one of the boys is likely to be locked up or headed to prison. The second boy — if he hasn’t already dropped out — will seriously weigh leaving high school and be pointed toward an uncertain future. The third boy will be speeding toward success by most measures.

Being a black man in America can mean inhabiting a border area between possibility and peril, to feel connected to, defined by, even responsible for each of those boys — and for other black men. In dozens of interviews, black men described their shared existence, of sometimes wondering whether their accomplishments will be treated as anomalies, their individuality obscured by the narrow images that linger in the minds of others.”

Overall, the introductory article is good. There are a few statistics that are either misinterpreted or wrong, but for the most part the article reflects what I think are the common views on the “problems, perils, and prospects” of Black men. I am admittedly leery of some of the save the Black man rhetoric because, even though it is well intentioned, some of it can be very patriarchal. I don’t think that the first article in this series falls into that trap. The only trap it falls into is the trap of talking about Black men as if they live in a vacuum. To talk about Black men as if they have a a completely autonomous existence from Black women and the larger society misses the point. That sort of framing makes it look like Black men just develop themselves without any outside influence from other race/gender groups. I don’t want to be too harsh though because this is just the first in a very long series, and there are a few places in the article where the author does talk about some of the social forces impacting Black men.

What I would like to do with your help (You gotta let me know when these article come out, as I don’t have Washington Post access.) is take on a particular problem or issue related to the articles. In other words, I’ll let you know what the statistics say, and what sociologists say. (I suspect my guest posting time at Alas will be over by the time these articles come out, so you’ll have to get over to my blog to check out the other entries.)

Here are a few of the topics I expect the Washington post Series to take on: Murder, Imprisonment, Unemployment, Single Parent Homes, Poverty, HIV, Life Expectancy, Parenting, and Pop Culture Images. Even if they do not take on these issues, I will because these are definitely some of the problem areas for some Black men. I am also going to compare Black men to other race gender groups so you can get a sense of how the data compares.

I’m going to go ahead today and start with Black men and graduation/drop out rates.

High School And College Graduation Rates by Race and Ethnicity

Before we can talk about Back men and their graduation rates, it is important to place this in a larger context. The graph above looks at racial variations in high school and college graduation. (Asians, who are not included in these charts have a slightly higher graduate rate than Whites, and I could not fin data on American Indians.). The good news is that the drop out rate for Blacks has fallen over the past 30 years and the graduation rate has increased. Here are two charts depicting these trends. Even though the trends are good, the gap stopped closing in the mid 1990s and persists today.

So What About Black Men?

Black Male Primary and Secondary School Performance

The data presented above is disaggregated by race but not by gender and race simultaneously. So what happens if we look at Black males compared to other race gender groups: how are they fairing in school? In 2001 the National Center For Education Statistics Released this report, which details school performance by race and gender. This report compares boys and girls throughout the educational process.

Although my primary focus here is on drop out and graduation rates, I thought it would be useful to include a discussion of a few other issues related to educational achievement. On most measures of early development, Black males and females are relatively similar, and on most measures Black students tend to perform better than Latinos and worse than Whites (Reports for Asians and American Indians are not included). One area where Black boys fair poorly is in their likelihood of repeating a grade. 12.2% of Black boys ages 5-12 had repeated a grade (a higher rate than any other race gender group). This compares to 10.8% of Hispanic boys, 7.1% of Black girls, 6.9% of White boys, 6.7% of Hispanic girls, and 4.4% of White girls. When it came to fighting at school or carrying weapons, Black boys were also considerably more like than any other race/gender group to report doing this, but they were significantly less likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana than their male counterparts. They were also less likely to be offered, sold, or given an illegal drug than their male counterparts (but more likely than their female counterparts). In fact, the only race/gender group less likely to use cigarettes or alcohol are Black girls.

The drop out statistics show Black men to be somewhere in the middle of the pack. 13% of Black males 16-24 had dropped out of high school, compared to 31.6% of Hispanic males, 22% of Hispanic females, 9% of Black females, 7.9% of White males, and 6.7% of White females. So when it comes to high school completion rates. Black males are not at the top of the pack, and they are not at the bottom.

Percent of male undergraduates by race/ethnicity and income

College graduation rates by race / ethnicity and sex

The most dramatic problem facing Black men, when it comes to education, is in the areas of college enrollment and completion. When it comes to college enrollment, the gap between Black men and other groups is sizable. In a 2004 issue of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education sociologist Obie Clayton argues that the low enrollment of Black men in college can be directly related to how Black males are treated earlier in their educational careers. He cites several major areas of concern:

1)The type of academic and career counseling Black males receive in high school. 2) The expectations high school teachers, counselors, parents and other adults have of them. 3)Lack of exposure to college-preparatory curriculum. 4)The preparation of their teachers. 5) Their family’s financial standing. 6) Their self-identity and overall attitude toward education and scholarship. 7) Their assessment of jobs and pay available with a high school degree or less, in comparison to a college degree.

My own assessment would be that on some of these issues, 4&5 in particular, Black males and females would not be differentially situated. However, I suspect that the expectations of teachers, counselors, and relatives have a profound impact on Black male college enrollment and high school performance. Clayton and his coauthors, Cynthia Hewitt and Eddie Gaffney, also argue that White female teachers in particular are prone to label Black male students as discipline problems.

The other elephant in the room is the mass incarceration of Black men. In this issue of Contexts Magazine sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Pettit argue that the the wide scale incarceration of Black men is contributing to an increasing divide between Whites and Blacks. Obie Clayton agrees. What should be duly noted is that these same Black male students are less likely to use illegal drugs, but more likely to be arrested for possession of drugs, abuse of drugs, and almost all other drug related charges.

I do think that when it comes to college we are in a crisis, when it comes to Black male enrollment and graduation, but I also think Latino/as are in an even worse crisis. I am not trying to distract from the problems related to Black men, but I have to wonder why the very poor academic performance Latino/as (men and women) is not as well publicized. What we do know is that young Black boys start out with very high expectations, and they like school, but somewhere along the way something happens. Recent studies have found that the “acting White theory” (the notion that doing good in school is a White thing) is not the primary reason for lower performance among Black males. My own sense of this is that the larger cultural expectations cause the funneling of Black boys away from gifted and college prep programs and into special education programs. Then, as Black boys grow into men the labels “less intelligent” and “trouble maker” become internalized. The school administrators, teachers, community members, parents, and other relatives all play a role in shaping this image of Black males. It’s also embedded in the popular culture, where Black men are more likely to be portrayed as violent than intelligent. It doesn’t help that definitions of “manliness” also contributes to this problem. When young Black men are encouraged to be the biggest, baddest, and the toughest, they often end up replicating negative behaviors (behaviors that many young White men can get away with–in particular using or distributing drugs).

So there you have it. Black boys seem to start out very slightly behind Black girls, moderately behind White boys and girls, and well ahead of their Latino/a counterparts. By the time they reach the college level Black men have fallen well behind Black women, and are now performing at the same level as Latinos (men).

I’ll be back with another post on Black men when the next article in the series comes out.

This entry posted in Boy crisis, Race, racism and related issues, Sexism hurts men. Bookmark the permalink. 

24 Responses to The Sky is Falling on Black Men?? Pt.1 Drop Out Rates and Graduation Rates

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  6. 6
    CM Gayley says:

    I’m a college football fan, and I often wonder about issues of race and educational attainment in collge sports. I wouldn’t want to suggest that somehow male black athletes are skewing the numbers, but I think that the numbers might be screwing male black atheletes.

    Gradutation rates for football and men’s basketball are far below average graduation rates, while for all other sports, both men’s and women’s, graduation rates are significantly above average.

    However, almost 50% of colege football players are black, and I imagine the numbers are similar for men’s basketball (and that both football and men’s baskbetball rates are above the average black attendence rates at all but historically black colleges).

    Without having any numbers to back me up, my assumption is that at schools with football teams, there is a strong stigma for black men of being on campus for sports rather than for an education, even for students who are not on athletic scholarship. I wonder what impact this has on graduation and attrition rates for those student-athletes.

    I also wonder if it’s possible to disaggregate the student athletes from the student non-athletes, to see what the differences are for black men in particular; it could be that football and basketball programs have a positive effect on black student-athlete graduation rates (as they do for most student-athletes), or it could be the reverse.

  7. 7
    Brandon Berg says:

    Aren’t the Hispanic statistics skewed heavily downward by the inclusion of adult immigrants?

    Also, is there any evidence that the three boys mentioned in the article really are largely alike in intelligence, talent, and character, or is that just pure speculation on the part of the reporter? He seems to be implying that all black males are more or less interchangeable, and that individual variation in intelligence has a negligible impact on incarceration and educational attainment.

  8. 8
    Rachel S. says:

    That’s a good question. I know that overall Black male athletes are MORE likely to graduate from college than Black male non-athletes. But nonetheless, the “dumb jock” image probably does have an effect on all Black men. It’s the kind of stereotyping and labeling that affects how Black men are treated in the classroom, and how Black men develop their self image. I don’t know if there are variations in campuses that do not have various athletic programs.

  9. 9
    Rachel S. says:

    Brandon said, “Aren’t the Hispanic statistics skewed heavily downward by the inclusion of adult immigrants?”
    No because they only include younger people–up to 24. There is a huge educational crisis for Latino immigrant children in this country. The good news is that the longer the residence in the US the better the school performance, but that is still fairly poor.

    “Also, is there any evidence that the three boys mentioned in the article really are largely alike in intelligence, talent, and character, or is that just pure speculation on the part of the reporter?”
    Obviously, they are not three real people, but of course, there is some variation “intelligence, talent, and character.” However, I would argue that those things need to be nurtured, and Black boys are not having them nurtured like their counterparts.

  10. 10
    Brandon Berg says:

    It says right on top of the chart that it’s the percentage of people aged 25-29. That includes a large number of people who immigrated, say, between the ages of 16 and 29, who have much lower rates of high school completion. I can’t find data that correspond precisely to what you have here, but the census data here (table 10) show a drop-out rate for native-born Hispanics 25-44 of about 18% (actually a bit higher, since this is non-institutional civilians), which means that, unless drop-out rates have soared in the last 15 years or so, they’re not as bad for native-born Hispanics as the chart above suggests.

    I don’t know what it looks like for child immigrants as opposed to adult immigrants, but in any case an educational crisis for immigrants is a different phenomenon from an educational crisis for natives, so I think it’s important to make that distinction.

  11. 11
    CM Gayley says:


    Would you happen to have the citation for that handy? I’d like to do a post on my blog about perceptions and reality of graduation rates and race in football.

  12. 12
    Brandon Berg says:

    And how much of that is just due to colleges relaxing academic standards for athletes as opposed to non-athletes?

  13. 13
    Rachel S. says:

    CM, Here’s a very recent report 4/2006 with the data. The study was completed by the The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

    Here’s a quote from the relevant paragraph….”It should be noted that African-American student-athletes, including revenue sport student-athletes, graduate at a higher rate than African-Americans who are not student athletes. African-American student-athletes as a whole graduate with a nine percent margin (52 percent vs. 43 percent) over African-American students as a whole. The higher rate is true of male and female student-athletes alike. Male African-American student-athletes graduated at 48 percent vs. the 36 percent for all male African-American students. African-American female student-athletes graduate at a 63 percent rate vs. 47 percent for African-American females in the student-athlete body as a whole.”

    These findings really are not new–I been using similar data in my class from the mid 1990s.

    I also take exception to Brandon’s point that athletes “have lower standards.” Here’s good quote from the 11/5/2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education about student athletes,

    Current freshman and sophomore athletes are now subject to somewhat more stringent standards for their college course work as well. To be eligible to compete as juniors, they will be required to have completed 60 percent of their degree requirements; as seniors, 80 percent; and as fifth-year players, 100 percent.

    Colleges must release graduation-rates for students and athletes under the Student Right to Know Act of 1990. This year the NCAA took over from the Department of Education the responsibility of collecting data directly from its members, allowing it to publish some information about individual athletes that was suppressed in last year’s report. Coaches have complained for years that graduation rates are an unfair measure of whether their athletes are actually getting an education. They point out that athletes transfer often, and that each transfer counts against the graduation rate at the college he or she leaves.

    However, athletes who transfer earn degrees at roughly the same rates as those who remain at the same college for their academic careers. The NCAA’s data show that 60 percent of the athletes who originally entered college from 1995 to 1999 and who transferred eventually earned degrees. Within that group, 45 percent of male basketball players and 53 percent of football players graduated on time.

    Athletes also have two key advantages over other students in their efforts to earn degrees. First, only athletes on scholarship are included in the rates, and the scholarships relieve them of the financial pressure that forces many students to leave college. And second, athletes at Division I institutions get extensive tutoring and academic advising, helping them to choose classes and majors that best fit their athletics schedules.

    The article does point out the poor graduation rates of male atheletes in a few sports (football and basketball in particular), but the standards for student athletes are actually higher than they are for non-athletes. You might be able to argue that some professors given preferential treatment to big time athletes or you might be able to argue that the tutoring and academic counseling system coddles athletes, but in terms of grades and credits, the standards are higher.

  14. 14
    Gregory C. says:

    The points you raise are very interesting. I am a black male, age 21, I just completed my BA and I am working on my J.D. Sadly, it does seem that, the higher I go in my eduaction, the fewer number of black males I see. That is a fact, but the question is what can we do about it? I am new to your blog so you may have dived into this particular line of questioning, but I must raise it.
    In one of my psychology classes, at NYU, the professor states that (and this is very close to a direct quote) that African-American males, have higher self-esteem because they do not blame themselves for thier failures. He/She went on to say that Black males can always blame failure on society, the ‘white man’, or some other external force. My question to you is how do we change that perception. In order to get more black men into school, we must let them know that it is a viable alternative. Sorry, I went on for so long, but I am very passionate about this.

  15. 15
    CM Gayley says:

    Thanks, Rachel. This has been an interesting discussion, and I appreciate you bringing the data to my attention.

  16. 16
    Rachel S. says:

    The phenomenon you’re talking about is called “system blame.” I don’t necesarily think it is a bad thing. Most of the studies indicate that Black men and women have higher self esteem than Whites, but higher self esteem doesn’t necessarily translated into higher academic performance. The key there is self efficacy….I think I have a post over on my blog about that let me search.

     I couldn’t find it.  But let me elabortate a little here.  High self esteem means that Black males (on the whole) feel good about themselves, but the studies also find that African Americans have much lower self efficacy.  Self efficacy refers to a persons belief in his or her ability to control their life and the environment.  What good is it if people feel good about themselves, if they don’t feel they can change their circumstances.  I think we should focus more on increasing the self efficacy of Black men and boys.  I’d have to think for a while about exactly how I would do that, but I think that is more important.

  17. 17
    Rachel S. says:

    Brandon said, “I don’t know what it looks like for child immigrants as opposed to adult immigrants, but in any case an educational crisis for immigrants is a different phenomenon from an educational crisis for natives, so I think it’s important to make that distinction.”

    On some level I agree with you, and the crisis is much greater for the 1.5 generation (which would be the children of immigrant parents), and the 1.0 generation which would be the foreign born). However, even the 18 percent figure you cited is well above the other racial groups, which to me constitutes a crisis. That’s close to 1 in 5 not completing high school.

    I should also let you know that the 16-24 data is not posted in a graph but in the link.

  18. 18
    Mark Rosenkranz says:

    The book “white Male Privilege” might enlighten some people.

  19. 19
    Mark Rosenkranz says:

    The book “White Male Privilege” can now be seen at This book might help in the fight against racism.

  20. 20
    Rachel S. says:

    Mark, Who is the author of that book?

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  22. 21
    Steve Sailer says:

    Right, Hispanics tend to be less education-oriented than blacks, even though the American-born ones tend to average a little higher on test scores. On the other hand, Hispanics who drop out of school usually get blue-collar jobs of some sort, while black male high school dropouts are in substantial danger of going to jail.

    By the way, there is some controversy over what the actual high school dropout rates are. Some methodologies find much higher dropout rates than these here. I don’t know enough about the issue to tell you what the right numbers are, though.

  23. 22
    Kyra_da_cutie says:

    what does this picture have to do with black on black crime

  24. 23
    Lisa says:

    I am working on my thesis project and I need sources on the plight of the young black male and the issue of dropping out of school. The reasons behind so many males dropping out- and ending up in prison. Any suggestions please help me. My email is This helps.