Equity & Diversity Opinion

Young Men of Color: A National Crisis

By Richard Whitmire — October 12, 2011 14 min read
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Note: This is a guest post by John Lee, policy director for the Advocacy and Policy Center in the Advocacy, Government Relations and Development unit at the College Board.

Within a generation, the College Board reports, the United States will be a much more diverse nation. In fact, no racial or ethnic group will be a majority in less than half a century, the board says. The fastest-growing populations in the country are those minority groups with the lowest levels of educational attainment—African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native-Americans. The data assures that if present levels of educational attainment and current population trends hold, the U.S. will see a decline in the educational attainment of the country as a whole.

In June 2011, the College Board expanded its initiative on the Educational Experiences of Young Men of Color at two events that launched groundbreaking reports and a dynamic website providing comprehensive details about the pathways and barriers for young men of color in the United States. This timely initiative addresses the urgent need to advance the national dialogue and address significant roadblocks that prevent so many men of color from earning college degrees and reaching their full potential. The challenge the nation faces is to find the will to give these young men the support they need to achieve success, not only for themselves, but to ensure the nation’s economic competitiveness.

Report Findings

The report findings show that nearly half of young men of color age 15 to 24 who graduate from high school ended up unemployed, incarcerated or dead in 2008. The report findings are powerful reminders of the disparate opportunities available to different groups in the United States. In order to regain the nation’s once-preeminent international position in educational attainment, we must begin to matriculate and graduate populations of American students who traditionally have been underrepresented at the postsecondary level. The educational achievement of minority males plays a significant role in this dialogue. Currently, just 26 percent of African-Americans, 24 percent of Native-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and 18 percent of Hispanic-Americans have at least an associate degree or higher. In addition, across the board in each racial group, young women are outperforming young men with respect to the attainment of high school diplomas, with even more pronounced disparities at the postsecondary level.

As part of the initiative, College Board Advocacy & Policy Center began a partnership with the Business Innovation Factory (BIF) to look at the higher education experiences of young men of color. Exploring the experiences of 92 African-American, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino and Native American students from 39 institutions across the country to learn how they get ready, get in and get through college.

The College Board and BIF engaged young men of color directly to understand how they view their experiences and to add their voice to the discussion of how to better meet their needs. Who are these students and how are they participating in higher education? What value do they place on a college degree?

The students surveyed reported being overwhelmed by a number of challenges including:

• Having the sole or dominant responsibility to support their families;
• Making ends meet financially;
• Dealing with Stereotypes;
• Overcoming difficult home or community situations;


It is clear that no “easy” button can be pressed to solve the educational challenges facing young men of color. This is not a problem that can be fixed by government alone, but must also involve states, local school districts, two-year and four-year colleges and universities, and community organizations at every level. Further, more research must be done across all racial/ethnic groups to identify the best policies, programs and practices that support students from high school to college completion.

The following recommendations are offered to address the myriad educational problems young men of color face—from broad to specific, from cultural to structural. These solutions are multifaceted, and include policy, research, community, institutional and community approaches. Each of these recommendations is vitally important in changing the discourse and the results for men of color in the United States.

Recommendation 1: Policymakers must make improving outcomes for young men of color a national priority.

While policymakers cannot create a single policy that will fix all the problems faced by young men of color today, there are several examples of policy initiatives that have been created by federal, state and local policymakers that are aimed at improving outcomes for young men and women of color. Policymakers can play a leading role in developing solutions, by creating policy initiatives and providing monetary incentives to encourage improving outcomes for young men of color at all levels. These can include policy initiatives that bring communities and institutions together to accomplish a common goal.

For example, President Obama’s policy initiative to increase the college attainment rate in America has galvanized the nation into thinking about how to reach this goal. Similar policy initiatives could be championed by governors, mayors and other leaders around the goal of increasing attainment of young men of color. Examples of existing policy initiatives include the White House initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics and the University System of Georgia’s African American Male Initiative. Each of these initiatives are examples of policy initiatives that are aimed at improving the educational outcomes for young men of color in the United States, and represents attempt by policy makers to address disparate outcomes for these groups.

Recommendation 2: Increase community, business and school partnerships to provide mentoring and support to young men of color.

Most of the work in solving the challenges facing young men of color will take place at the grassroots level. It will not be possible without the support and active participation of businesses and community based-organizations. Businesses can play a vital role in helping young men of color. Some of the solutions that businesses can implement include providing incentives/rewards for children of employees who do well in school, releasing parents to attend teacher conferences, and providing mentors for students in both K-12 and higher education.

Several companies and corporations in the United States are already actively involved in education, and many of these companies have foundations (e.g. Ford, Wal-Mart, and Coca-Cola) that provide monetary support to communities. However, businesses alone cannot make the change that is sought. Community-based organizations must also work with businesses and communities to increase community involvement and to improve school and community collaboration. Community-based empowerment programs are another way to help reach students and provide them with much of the academic and social support they need.

There are several model programs of successful collaborations between businesses and community-based organizations with schools can communities that are aimed specifically at minority males. One excellent example of successful collaborations between businesses and community-based organizations is New York’s Harlem Children’s Zone, led by Geoffrey Canada, which is one of the most extensive community-school collaborations in the history of the United States. HCZ is a unique, innovative, community-based organization offering education, social services, and community-building services to children and families. It wraps a comprehensive array of child and family services around schools in an entire neighborhood -- parenting classes, job training, health clinics, charter schools -- convinced that schools reflect what is going on in the communities around them. Many of the thousands of students in these schools show impressive achievement gains. The success of this initiative in has led to its replication throughout the nation.

Recommendation 3: Reform education to ensure that all students, including young men of color, are college and career ready when they graduate from high school.

While the support of government, businesses and communities is needed to solve the challenges facing young men of color, schools, teacher, counselors and parents play vital roles in supporting these young men. Schools must find ways to re-design and re-invent themselves to serve a more diverse set of students. Options include creating single-sex classrooms, providing character education, reforming disciplinary and special education policies, and improving the curriculum. However, these structural changes are only the start to changing outcomes for young men of color, and more must be done around increasing the belief in schools that all students can achieve greatness. Schools such as Eagle Academy for Young Men in New York and Urban Prep Academy in Chicago are both great examples of schools that serve primarily low-income minority males, yet have found success in not only graduating these young men from high school but also ensuring that these young are enrolling and succeeding in colleges and universities across the country.

Recommendation 4: Improve teacher education programs and provide professional development that includes cultural- and gender-responsive training.

It is important that teachers receive professional development on successful strategies that will allow them to provide culturally-sensitive approaches to ensuring positive outcomes for young men of color. This training should include culturally-responsive instruction, diversity training, and training in college and career readiness for all teachers and counselors. Student-centered approaches should improve outcomes for young men of color; these approaches should include academic and personal mentoring, personal counseling, providing positive role models and culturally-based programs. Schools should seek to increase the number of male teachers in order to provide role models for young men.

It is also imperative that schools create a college-going-culture for all students. Minority male students need help with goal-setting, creating postsecondary plans, and navigating the financial aid and admission processes. Schools should provide supports for students between high school graduation and college enrollment to ensure that they make a successful transition. This support can come in the form of offering summer bridge programs, staffing hotlines that help students discover solutions to daunting tasks and questions, or providing transportation to colleges and universities.

Recommendation 5: Create culturally appropriate persistence and retention programs that provide wraparound services to increase college completion for men of color.

Higher education is not exempt from its role in ensuring the success of young men of color in obtaining degrees. The actions of these institutions play a critical role in the success or failure of young men of color. If we are to reach the shared goal of increasing attainment among men of color, 2-year and 4-year colleges and universities must strengthen persistence and retention strategies that are aimed at retaining young men of color in college and increasing their graduation rates. Institutions must make monumental efforts to improve campus racial climates--from the classroom to the student center. This means that diversity and inclusion cannot be something that is only found in a diversity office or multicultural center, or in the African American studies department. Instead, these efforts must permeate the entire university and include administrators, deans, staff and faculty. They should include providing more culturally-appropriate retention and support programming, implementing culturally-sensitive approaches to supporting mental health, and developing systems to monitor young men of color and provide them with ongoing support. Further, higher education must provide more institutional financial aid and on-campus employment opportunities for men of color to help them meet the financial challenges they face. Institutions must understand the cultural barriers these students face in order to find adequate solutions that will work for their campus. This requires that more institutions provide research-based solutions to aid students.

Recommendation 6: Produce more research and conduct more studies that strengthen the understanding of the challenges faced by males of color and provide evidence-based solutions to these challenges

One of the main findings of the research is there is simply not enough research available that concerns men of color, especially Asian-American/Pacific Islanders and American Indians and Alaska natives. Only slightly more information exists for Latinos. Though African-American men have received the lion’s share of attention with regards to men of color, much of the research that has been done is not evidenced-based and has not proven to be effective in solving the problems for African Americans. More and better research and data are needed in relation to men of color that will help to design better and more culturally-sensitive interventions and strategies that will help aid these students with college readiness and completion. There is a need to get more data that can be disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, country of origin/ citizenship status, first language and best language; these data may disentangle part of the web of mysteries that still exist regarding men of color.

While there is a plethora of research on the educational and social condition of young men of color, there is still a need to expand this research to include studies of high achieving men of color. This may uncover more factors that contribute to persistence in education for men of color.

Legal Implications

Inevitably, one question associated with minority male initiatives that is likely to arise, regardless of the precise context at issue: Within a range of potentially educationally valid options, what are the legal rules and implications that should guide the design and development of policies and programs that will address the educational challenges associated with minority males?

The College Board offers the guidelines to assist policymakers and practitioners that are interested in creating minority males initiatives.

First, goals and objectives associated with policies or programs developed to enhance minority male achievement and success should reflect strong educational foundations, based on relevant educational research and experience. Second, to the extent that the race, ethnicity or sex preferences are reflected in the design and implementation of a policy or program developed to enhance minority male achievement and success, fundamental coherence between the educational goals and the design of the policy or program must exist. Practically speaking, such preferences should have the necessary positive impact, but should neither be over- nor under-inclusive in their design.

Also, policies or programs including race-conscious preferences that are limited to members of a particular race (or races) or ethnicity (or ethnicities)—and exclude others of different races or ethnicities—are difficult to sustain under federal law. To do so, the design of those policies and programs must reflect an exceedingly strong educational foundation (a “compelling interest” in legal terms). They must do so in a way in which the exclusive nature of the preferences is clearly justified. In other words, if the goals of the program could likely be effectively achieved with a less race- or ethnicity-exclusive design, then the program will most likely not be sustainable under federal law.

Similarly, policies or programs including gender-conscious preferences that are limited to members of a particular sex are challenging to sustain under federal law. To do so, the design of those policies and programs must reflect a strong educational foundation (an “important interest,” in legal terms); and they must do so in a way in which the exclusive nature of the preferences is clearly justified.


It is the College Board’s goal that our initiative for young men of color serves as the impetus for policymakers, businesses, communities, schools, teachers, counselors, 2- and 4-year colleges and universities and scholars to address the issues affecting the academic performance of young men of color. The College Board is particularly interested in research, partnerships, and collaborative efforts that lead to viable solutions to the challenges that are currently experienced by young men of color; and we are interested in how to scale these initiatives for the nation. This must be done to improve the nation’s education system, and to reach the goal of ensuring that at least 55 percent of young Americans earn a postsecondary degree or credential by 2025. This goal cannot be accomplished unless we tackle and solve the problems faced by young men of color. This completion goal is not just about once again making the United States a leader in education attainment, nor is it simply an equity agenda. Instead, the goal of eradicating the disparities that exist for minorities—especially men of color—is about jobs and the future of the American economy and competitiveness. We must have a diverse, educated workforce that is prepared for the knowledge-based jobs of the future and that will lead the United States through the challenges of the future.

For more details on this initiative,

please visit our website.

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The opinions expressed in Why Boys Fail are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.