CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For the U.S. to achieve President Barack Obama’s goal of having the largest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020, educators, policymakers and families will need to address the barriers that discourage minorities from pursuing higher education. A new study by Lorenzo DuBois Baber, a professor of higher education at the University of Illinois, sheds light on the unique challenges facing African American and Latino males.
Baber, who is a faculty member in the department of education policy, organization and leadership in the College of Education, interviewed 11 black and three Latino males who were high school juniors or seniors or first-year students at three community colleges in Illinois. The men were participants in the College and Career Readiness of Illinois program, an academic preparation initiative being tested at seven community colleges in Illinois that aims to reduce remedial coursework at college entry.
The study stemmed from a program assessment by the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at Illinois that indicated that only a few African American and Latino first-year college students were taking advantage of the assistance available to them through the CCR program.
The men in the study reported having family members and other adults who nurtured their educational aspirations from an early age, who affirmed education as a family value and a priority, and helped sustain their commitment to academic achievement when faced with racial/gender stereotypes or peer relationships that conflicted with their aspirations. Having multiple adults who consistently demonstrated strong belief in their college potential was crucial, and support from teachers or school administrators was especially valuable to boys who discovered early that they had a passion for a particular skill or subject.
However, study participants said that the presence of an older, male peer in their community who had successfully transitioned from high school to college and could provide “insider information” about courses, professors, academic resources and other aspects of the college experience was particularly motivating and beneficial.
Communal bonds with peers who are successful in college – particularly at institutions with actual or perceived racial tension – provide vital “resistance capital” for young men of color, Baber wrote. Successful peers model alternative masculine identities that promote postsecondary enrollment, counter cultural myths and negative influences, and inspire younger students from their communities to persevere when faced with racism and institutional or cultural barriers.
“Having students who have been successful at any postsecondary institution go back to their high school and honestly discuss their experiences, challenges and the resources that are available” would provide more students of color with role models that encouraged them to pursue higher education, Baber said. “And it builds this pipeline, this critical mass of successful individuals who are from their community and they can identify with. I think that’s particularly important for African American and Latino males because there are so many stereotypes about them that are promoted by the mainstream media and other sources.”
Many of the study participants reported experiences in which classmates had made negative comments about their academic achievement in high school and promoted stereotypes about African American and Latino males. Support from family members or other adults – or, in one instance, cultivation of a new peer network of academically motivated students – helped students resist internalization of negative messages. However, for one boy at least, academic achievement necessitated social isolation because he had to distance himself from male friends that didn’t share his scholarly ambitions, and he lacked supportive adults in his life.
Cultural definitions of masculinity, which venerate aggression, domination and conflict – traits not valued in educational contexts – also may clash with African American and Latino men’s educational aspirations. Many of the students felt pressured by family members and peers to enter the workforce immediately after high school because employment was a cultural marker of manhood and prioritized immediate financial gains over the long-term, dubious investment of college.
Fears of being perceived as weak or vulnerable – and potentially being ostracized or ridiculed by their peers – discouraged African American and Latino male students from seeking help when they were struggling academically or grappling with stress and anxiety, the study found.
The costs of college attendance were a particular concern of the students, who were from disadvantaged rural or urban communities. Beliefs that higher education is unaffordable – coupled with a lack of information about grants, scholarships and other resources – may discourage many underserved students from ever considering going to college, the report said.
“What is often described as lack of ‘motivation’ or ‘desire’ among African American Latino males may be the result of declining aspirations stimulated by unchallenged assumptions about the financial burden of postsecondary attendance,” Baber wrote.
“It is evident, particularly for first-generation college students, that the lack of information hurt their ability to navigate pathways to postsecondary success. Developing accessible information to help students navigate the postsecondary system is critical.”
Although some studies have suggested that college placement and other high-stakes tests are detrimental to minority students, the men in the study reported that the testing – in conjunction with positive feedback from school officials – provided them with critical information about their skill set and readiness for college-level work. Because many of them had struggled academically during high school, the exams helped clarify the academic paths they needed to take and the time required to achieve their goals.
Academic planning that begins before students enter high school would help them chart paths of study that prepared them for college, the report suggested.
Brandon Common, a doctoral student in higher education at Illinois, was Baber’s co-author on the study.
The researchers plan to follow up with the study participants this summer to examine their progress toward their educational goals and their responses to the challenges they’ve faced.