It was in his high school years that Raymond Roy seriously thought about going to college. Raised largely by his grandmother in a tough, low-income neighborhood in north Philadelphia, Roy found encouragement from family members and a few college-bound friends.
"I had good grades, but I didn't think college was something I could do until I saw some of my friends going for it," he says.
Roy's college pursuit took him to Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania where he made the Dean's List his freshman year. Identified in the spring of his freshman year by campus administrators as a motivated high achiever, Roy took part in the National Black Male College Achievement Study, the largest-ever empirical study of Black male undergraduates.
Roy is one of 219 young Black men from around the nation who have participated in what the study's author, Dr. Shaun R. Harper, an assistant professor of higher education management at the University of Pennsylvania, hopes will create a new paradigm of how Black males adapt and succeed in college.
Partly launched when he was a Ph.D. student at Indiana University several years ago, Harper later completed the bulk of the survey work from early 2005 to summer 2006. Traveling each week while teaching courses at Pennsylvania State University, Harper conducted two- to three-hour individual interviews with most of the 219 students on their respective campuses. The subjects were enrolled in 42 colleges and universities in 20 states. The respective schools fall into six categories, including historically Black public institutions, historically Black private institutions and highly selective, private research universities.
"I was pleased to be part of Dr. Harper's study because it meant that my story can be helpful to someone else," says Roy, now a junior at Lock Haven.
In contrast to Roy, Ruben Alexander of Decatur, Ga., benefited from the guidance of two college-educated parents who constantly urged him to do his best at all times as a student. Alexander believes the relentless focus on excellence instilled in him by his parents helped make it possible for him to graduate as valedictorian of the Morehouse College class of 2007 with a 4.0 GPA.
Currently a first-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, Alexander feels confident that he has the experience and high academic skills to do well in medical school.
"I was fortunate to have the drive for excellence instilled in me and I hope my experience can be a valuable perspective in Dr. Harper's research," Alexander says.
WORKING THROUGH THE DATA
Harper believes that the stories of young men such as Roy and Alexander are critical to helping craft effective strategies to improve Black male success in college. According to the researcher, some 67.6 percent of Black male students who begin college never complete their degrees. Black males have the worst college attrition rate among both sexes and all racial/ethnic groups in higher education, Harper says.
"Black men comprised only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled at American institutions of higher education, the exact same percentage as in 1976. Literally, no progress has been made in increasing participation rates among this population in over a quarter of a century," he has written.
Answers to solving low Black male college enrollment and completion rates, Harper believes, lie largely in the research he has compiled. Currently working through some 4,500 pages of interview material and data, he is writing both a 40-page report and a book, which should yield strategies that are informed by the experiences of successful male students.
"It's been pretty well documented that Black male students--in particular at all levels of schooling--are the population for whom teachers, administrators and others tend to hold the lowest expectations. I've long felt that no student rises to low expectations. …