Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Gender-Based Achievment Gap No Less Persistent at Selective Institutions

December 4th, 2007 by Ajuan Mance

Ivy League science powerhouse Cornell University and Cedar Valley College (in the Dallas County Community College District’s ) may not have much in common in terms of region, endowment, selectivity, and mission, but they do have one thing in common. Each institution serves its constituency effectively and consistently, with one exception — both Cornell University and Cedar Valley College are failing their Black male students.

Actually, to say that these institutions are “failing their Black male students” might be a little too harsh. With a 75% graduation rate for African American men, and a roughly 86% graduation rate for African American students overall (including an average rate of roughly 90% for Black women), Cornell University has one of the highest Black graduation rates of any college in the United States (and a higher rate than any of the HBCUs).

In the case of Cedar Valley College, the flagging graduation rates for Black men reflects a larger national trend. This trend hits community colleges harder than 4-year institutions, largely because community colleges welcome a broader range of students, including many whose academic qualifications, financial status, and personal circumstances would identify them as “at-risk” for delayed graduation or attrition.

In an effort to address the gender achievement gap at this majority Black institution, both the chancellor of the Dallas Community College District and the president of Cedar Valley have joined a nationwide initiative to recruit and retain Black male students on community college campuses. (Click HERE to read a CBS report on Cedar Valley’s efforts).

So, while neither Cedar Valley nor Cornell are actually failing Black men (Cornell still graduates Black male students at a very high rate, and Cedar Valley is actively responding to this problem), that both the non-selective Cedar Valley and the highly selective Cornell are experiencing the same challenges in the area of Black male achievement points to the perplexing nature of this dilemma.

In the November 29th edition of The Cornell Daily Sun, Vice Provost for Social Science David Harris cites racism as one of the root causes of the Black male/Black female achievement gap on his campus — especially, “the negative stereotypes many people associate with black men, which can add to the difficulties blacks already face as underrepresented minorities on campus.” Click HERE to read the Daily Sun article.

Student leaders also offer these additional reasons for both race- and gender-based achievement gaps at Cornell:

Ernie Jolly ’09, Black Students United co-president, said that one issue for black and Latino students is “how comfortable they feel on campus.”

He said that it can be intimidating for a black student to be the only black person in a large lecture class and noted that sometimes professors have “different expectations” for their black and Latino students.

Enongo A. Lumumba-Kasongo ’08, Black Students United senior co-president added that oftentimes black students “haven’t had comfortable relationships with administrators or authority figures in the past,” and may have a hard time contacting and approaching professors or other members of Cornell’s faculty.

Although many students at Cornell come from lower socio-economic statuses, this is another difficulty faced by many minority students. The responsibility of “splitting studying with working,” creates difficulties for some students according to Iris Delgado ’09, vice president of ALANA, the African, Latino, Asian, Native American Programming Board.

Additionally, many minority students may be the first in their families to attend college and lack the familial guidance and support that other students take for granted.

That Cornell University is experiencing a racial achievement gap comes as no surprise to me. Despite their efforts , Ivy League and similar institutions do, simply by virtue of their disproportionately privileged student body, remain uncomfortable settings for many Black undergraduates.

The Black male/Black female gender gap, however, is more surprising. While Cornell’s Vice Provost Harris is correct in his observation that the negative stereotypes associated with their group hamper Black men’s adjustment and success on majority white college campuses. It is also true, however, that Black women must cope with the negative stereotypes associated with their group; and Black male and female students must confront many of the same stereotypes. Indeed, a number of the stereotypes most closely intertwined with Blacks’ presence on college campuses apply equally to men and women (that Black people are hypersexual and under-intelligent, that all Black people are only on campus because they have “stolen the place” of a more qualified white student, that Black people are incapable of high levels of academic achievement).

What, then, is the basis for this intra-racial gender gap? Perhaps it has something to do with the difference between gender stereotypes based on the high visibility of Black men as hypermasculine and gender stereotypes based on the invisibility of Black women as feminine. Perhaps it also is related to the role that Women’s Studies programs and feminist tools of analysis have played in giving women tools for externalizing prevailing stereotypes and then dismantling them.

Whatever the reasons for the achievement gap between Black men and Black women, there are two fundamental truths that institutions simply must bear in mind as they develop strategies to interpret and address this issue:

First, it is essential that all of us who are concerned about Black communities and Black education must remember that the existence of a gender gap in which women are graduating at higher rates than men is not, in and of itself, a problem. A difference of 5 percentage points or less, for example, might be ascribed to the greater opportunities available for men in the military, in the trades, in sports, and in other similar realms in which there are dramatically fewer possibilities for women. The 10 – 15 point differences that have become common in the Black community, however, suggest something other than young Black men opting to pursue career paths than do not require a bachelor’s degree; rather a gap of this size suggests that the great majority of those young men are falling between the cracks.

Second, and more importantly, we must not let our intra-racial comparisons (which paint Black women as relative sucesses on college campuses) obscure the fact that African American women, too, are struggling to complete their studies. As we consider the wisdom and effectiveness of developing specific strategies to address the needs of Black male matriculants, we must maintain our interest in and committment both to sustaining existing support systems for Black women students, and to developing new onse. We must not allow the fact that Black women’s overall college graduation rate is approximately 11 percentage points higher than that of their male counterparts distract us from the fact that, at 47%, the overall graduation rate for Black women is still low enough to suggest a desperate need for intervention.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in Achivement Gap, African American Students, Black men, Black Students, Black women, Cedar Valley College, Cornell University, Current Events, gender gap, Higher Education

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