As Black college enrollment lags, study suggests strengthening communities

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MarQuan Thornton is a senior at Adelanto High in California’s High Desert. He credits the Heritage Program at his school, aimed at Black students, for helping to keep him on track for attending college.

Emma Gallegos/EdSource

Across the nation, more Black students are graduating from high school — but fewer are attending college, according to a report released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. 

A study released Tuesday by the organization examined 15 districts throughout the country that collectively educate more than 250,000 Black male students, two of which are in California: the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school district in the state, where 7% of students are Black, and the Oakland Unified School District, which has an enrollment of about 45,000, 21% of students being Black. 

With a 71% graduation rate, Black males at Oakland Unified were among the five lowest in the country — hovering above Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Minneapolis. At 75%, Los Angeles Unified’s wasn’t much higher. 

“It’s clear that there is something that has to happen across California,” said John Jackson, the CEO and president of the Schott Foundation. 

“If you take L.A. Unified and Oakland Unified as two of the largest districts in the state — and two districts that have the largest Black male population — there is something that has to happen.” 

Jackson added that any efforts by LAUSD are especially critical and could “potentially catalyze progress across the country.” 

Graduating from high school

As of the 2019-20 academic year, roughly 86% of students across the country graduated from high school in four years, according to the report. 

And between 2012 and 2020, Black students’ graduation rates improved the most of any group — slicing the gap between Black and white students by almost half. Black male students, however, did not perform as well as their female peers. 

“The fact that between 2012-2020, the graduation rate increased for all students (4%) and more significantly for Black students (14%) supports the need for states and localities to focus on resourcing the strategies and supports that improve the academic outcomes for the lowest performing group as a pathway to elevate the outcomes for all students,” the report noted. 

Still, at 81%, the rate for all Black students remains below the national average — along with Latino and Native American students. 

Only three states had graduation rates that were higher than the national average: Alabama (88%), Delaware (87%) and Florida (87%). On the other hand, Wyoming (66%), Minnesota (69%) and Idaho (69%) had the lowest rates. 

In California, Black students sustained a graduation rate of 76.9%. 

Graduating from high school, according to the report, is also connected to a lower likelihood of becoming homeless or incarcerated.

Specifically, the report notes that a young person who has not graduated from high school is 350% more likely to experience homelessness and 63% more likely to face incarceration. 

High school graduation can also be linked with a longer life expectancy. 

“To change this trajectory impacting the very lives of Black males, we must broaden our lens beyond the classrooms and hallways because students do not live within school walls,” Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in the report.

“They reside with families and are part of neighborhoods where the prevailing conditions directly impact not only their educational outcomes but also their life expectancy.”

Going to college 

Nationally, in the past decade, more than 600,000 Black male students who were projected to participate in post-secondary education have been missing, according to the report. 

Community college enrollment among Black students across the board fell by 26%, and Black student enrollment in historically Black colleges and universities fell by 16%. Meanwhile, in four-year colleges and universities, there was no increase. 

And among Black men, college enrollment dropped by 39% between 2011 and 2020. 

The fall in enrollment comes amid an increase in the number of Black people between the ages of 18 to 34 — whose population rose from 9 million in 2000 to almost 11.5 million a decade later. 

Last year, in the Cal State system, graduation equity gaps also increased between Black, Latino and Indigenous students. But some campuses have made targeted efforts to bridge them. 

CSU’s Young Males of Color Consortium received $3.2 million dedicated to creating programs that will be available at 16 CSU campuses and nearby community colleges — and has been “laser-focused on collaborating with higher education professionals to improve the retention, success, and college completion of young men of color enrolled at our partner colleges and universities,” according to a statement provided to EdSource.

“In the future, we hope to work with our K-12 partners to strengthen the college access pipeline for young men of color, including Black men,” the consortium added.

‘Loving systems’ 

The report emphasized the need to cultivate “loving systems” — which it defines as “a system of core supports that you would provide the children you love” — in order to foster equity and improve student outcomes.

“When we talk about loving systems, we talk about giving young people and, in this particular case, Black males, access to the supports that are indicative of what you know the average parent would give their young person to succeed,” Jackson said. 

“Access to healthy food is an education issue. Access to affordable housing is an education issue.”

In LAUSD, the Black poverty rate was 20% in 2022, and the Black unemployment rate remained at 14%. Meanwhile, in Oakland, the poverty rate was similar to LAUSD — and the Black unemployment rate was about 10%. 

Both regions also deal with high costs of living and are highly segregated. According to the study, LAUSD had a Residential Segregation Dissimilarity Index of 60%, and Oakland’s was 52%. The index measures the distribution of Black and white residents, ranging from complete integration at zero, to complete segregation at 100.  

“At the end of the day, racism is nothing more than institutionalized lovelessness. And with that frame, our goal here has to be — and as we recommend the North Star for California, for LA for Oakland, and many other cities — creating … the types of loving communities where all students have an opportunity to learn and to thrive,” Jackson said. 

“When we do that, we will also see the type of progress in a multiracial democracy that we desire.”

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