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Why Men of Color Aren’t Graduating From College

Rachel Goodman,
Former Staff Attorney,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
Swati Prakash,
Racial Justice Program
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June 24, 2011

Let’s be straight when we talk about why it is men of color aren’t graduating from college.

It’s true, as this week’s College Board report notes, that just one in four African-American or Native-American men, and one in five Latino men, hold an associate’s degree or higher. But how can we be surprised about this outcome when boys of color attend public schools more segregated today than they were in the 1960’s? Since Brown v. Board of Education officially ended racial segregation in schools, white flight to private schools combined with residential segregation has isolated children of color. The way we finance schools concentrates funding in wealthy communities, which dooms poor children, often children of color, to attend schools severely lacking in resources.

The College Board’s report documents the alarming disparity in the graduation rate of young men of color when compared with their white male and minority female peers (educational attainment is higher for women within every racial group). The report explores these gaps at the high school and college levels, but it fails to examine and explain the root of the problem.

The urban school districts across the country that are responsible for educating huge numbers of children of color are, in many cases, collapsing. In Detroit, for example, officials announced yesterday a budget that would cut teacher salaries by 10 percent across the board in an attempt to reduce class size to a still-outrageous 30 students per elementary school classroom. In New York City, where African-American and Latino students comprise 82 percent of public school students, the New York Times reported this week that public high schools that earn “A” grades from the Department of Education still graduate many students who are not prepared for college-level work.

Thinking about why men of color don’t graduate from college in the numbers we would like them to without considering the boys trapped in these failing systems misses a crucial piece of the story.

What’s worse, in many places, boys of color spend their school days being treated like potential criminals. Major cities like New York increasingly rely on police to maintain classroom discipline, and many employ a “zero-tolerance” policy resulting in arrests of children for infractions as minor as having rap lyrics in their locker. Despite evidence that these policies do not make schools safer, as documented in a 2009 New York Civil Liberties Union report, overpolicing persists around the country. The College Board report notes the “alarming” fact that, of the 18- to 24-years olds in jail or prison, 42 percent are African-American, and 23 percent are Latino (although they make up just 7 percent and 8 percent of the population, respectively). But these statistics don’t reflect the unjust reality inside our public school systems, which all too often push young men of color toward the criminal justice system instead of toward college.

So, let’s add two recommendations to the College Board’s report: 1) Ensure that all schools have the resources they need to provide a quality education to all children; and 2) Eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels children out of the public school system into the criminal justice system. Instead of treating men and boys of color as delinquents and future dropouts, let’s invest in dismantling the structural barriers that continue to prevent them from achieving their full potential.

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