Addressing the Need for More Black Males to Attend College

photo of Robert Johnson (BA, '58)

Editor’s note: Robert Johnson of Evanston, Ill., is a Roosevelt alumnus and was the first African-American vice president of Sears, Roebuck and Company. He is the benefactor of the Black Male Leadership Academy, which takes place this week at Roosevelt.

For many years, I have been concerned about problems created when large numbers of black youth fail to succeed during their middle and high school years. This concern is most likely a result of my own experiences attending school in Chicago.

I graduated from DuSable High School in the early 1950s. I was an average student and didn’t fully appreciate the value of working hard in high school until my senior year. That was over 60 years ago, when the benefits and demands of college weren’t as well understood as they are today.

However, even then my limited knowledge came with a rude awakening. I enrolled in Crane Junior College in 1953. At my initial meeting with the college advisor, I was informed that my chances of succeeding at Crane were slim. If I chose to enroll, I was encouraged to register for remedial classes, quit my job and take a maximum of three courses. Despite this rather jolting analysis, I believed in myself and embraced the goal of attaining a degree. It is this belief—that success can be attained even when the odds are against you— that led me to support a new program at Roosevelt University called the Black Male Leadership Academy (BMLA).

I decided to become involved in this effort fully aware of the statistics that have led some to say that black males are in crisis. Nationally, only 52 percent of black males in the class of 2012 graduated from high school, compared to 78 percent of their white male counterparts. In Chicago, the black-white high school graduation gap is larger: only 39 percent of black males in the class of 2012 graduated from a Chicago Public School high school, compared to 66 percent of white males.

In Chicago, the black-white high school graduation gap is larger: only 39 percent of black males in the class of 2012 graduated from a Chicago Public School high school, compared to 66 percent of white males.

After high school, the black-white educational gap further increases, resulting in continued decline of young black males at every major graduation point. Nationally, white males are two times more likely to graduate from a public two-year college than black males. The statistics at four-year universities and colleges are also bleak. According to the Congressional Black Caucus,  black males ages 18 and older make up just 5.5 percent of all college students and of the black males who enroll in college, only one in six (approximately 17 percent) will receive a college degree.

In 1958 I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University and later served as a member of Roosevelt’s Board of Trustees. Last year, I learned from then-Roosevelt President Chuck Middleton that the University’s St. Clair Drake Center was developing a new approach to assisting black males in the Chicago Public Schools. After several meetings with Drake Center director Al Bennett, I decided to financially support the program for three years.

I’m interested in the BMLA because it is a simple and direct innovation that addresses two important parts of a successful career: who you know and what you know. The program has two components: the Summer Institute and Second Saturdays. The Summer Institute takes place for one week on Roosevelt’s Chicago Campus. During the week, approximately 20 male students live in the dorms, attend classes, and go to a wide range of social and cultural events. The second component is for students who are graduates of the Summer Institute. They come to Roosevelt for a half-day on the second Saturday of each month (from October to May) to participate in a range of intellectual and social activities including mentoring, college preparation and visitations, and ACT and SAT test preparation.

The program’s goal is to have all of the young men who participate in this effort complete high school and enroll in a college that is a good fit for them.

The program’s goal is to have all of the young men who participate in this effort complete high school and enroll in a college that is a good fit for them. A major part of the program is a required evaluation of outcomes. It is important to know what happens to these young men, both in the short term and long term. If it works, we want to know why and if it doesn’t, we want to know why not. However, whether we succeed in meeting our program goals, I believe that those who participate will benefit in some way.

Colleges and universities are ideal places to develop and implement innovative programs that address the needs of black males. I realize that there are no silver bullets to the complex challenges that our young men face, but I encourage those who can provide resources to develop innovative programs like the Black Male Leadership Academy.

Read more: Roosevelt students Frank Pettis and Joshua Hicks wrote about their time as BMLA mentors last summer, and the experience of growing up black and male.

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