Opportunity beyond Affirmative Action: How Low-Income and Working-Class Black Male Achievers Access Highly Selective, High-Cost Colleges and Universities

By Harper, Shaun R.; Griffin, Kimberly A. | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Opportunity beyond Affirmative Action: How Low-Income and Working-Class Black Male Achievers Access Highly Selective, High-Cost Colleges and Universities


Harper, Shaun R., Griffin, Kimberly A., Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


Published research on college access, particularly at highly selective and high-cost private postsecondary institutions, focuses primarily on barriers for underrepresented student populations. Higher-education scholars and policy makers have been especially concerned in recent years about stagnant (and, in some instances, declining) rates of enrollment among Black male undergraduates. This article presents findings from two-to-three-hour individual interviews with Black undergraduate men who grew up in low-income and working-class families and later enrolled in one of eighteen predominantly White private postsecondary institutions. We describe the policies and programs that enabled these men to successfully navigate their way to and through these colleges and universities, and we then offer implications for higher-education policy.

In Beating the Odds: How the Poor Get to College, Arthur Levine and Jana Niddifer (1996) describe the complex lives and educational journeys of twenty-four low-income students who gained admission to a range of postsecondary institutions, including elite universities. Few qualitative studies of undergraduates from similar socioeconomic circumstances have since been published, thus much remains to be known about such students and which programs, policies, and institutional practices enable them to access particular sectors of postsecondary education. Emphasis most often is placed on exploring barriers rather than facilitators of college opportunity for lower-income and minoritized populations (St. John et al. 2011). This has been especially prevalent over the past decade in published research and public discourse concerning the participation of Black male students in American higher education.

One of the authors of this article, Shaun R. Harper (2006), found that Black men comprised only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled at institutions of higher education in 2002--the exact same as in 1976. The most significant gains in degree attainment during this time period were at community colleges. More recently, Harper (2011) reported that between 1994 and 2008, an increase of one Black male undergraduate was accompanied by an increase of five White male students. The overwhelming majority of Black men attend less selective regional state institutions, community and technical colleges, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Myriad socioeconomic factors help explain, at least in part, the low rates at which Black male students enroll in highly selective colleges and universities. For example, in comparison to their White counterparts, fewer Black families can afford to live in neighborhoods with high property values and well-resourced neighborhood schools (Massey and Denton 1993; Massey et al. 2010). The continuation of residential segregation in the United States concentrates Black students in public K-12 schools that have fewer resources, lower per-student expenditures, fewer advanced placement courses, and less experienced teachers than the suburban schools many White students attend (Frankenburg and Lee 2002; McDonough 1998; Orfield 2001). This leads to measurable differences in the quality of Black students' educational experiences, leaving many insufficiently prepared to engage in competitive college admissions processes (Chang 2000; Griffin and Allen 2006; Solorzano and Ornelas 2004; St. John 2003).

One of the authors of this article, Kimberly A. Griffin et al. (2010), found that over a thirty-three-year period, Black male undergraduates increasingly came from affluent families. Comparatively, lower-income students are less likely to apply to college generally (Fitzgerald and Delaney 2002; McDonough 1997; McDonough 1998) and to enroll at elite colleges specifically (Bowen and Bok 1998; Hurtado et al. 1997). William Bowen et al. (2005, 135) found that while socioeconomic status (SES) had little influence on whether students were admitted to or performed well at highly selective institutions, it shaped the process that prepared them to engage in the application process; thus, they observed, "the odds of getting into this highly competitive pool in the first place depend enormously on who you are and how you grew up. …

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