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Editorial -- Gender gap

Why the underrepresentation of black men in college?

Friday, February 20, 1998

The continued underrepresentation of black men in colleges and universities has disturbing implications for the nation. Of the black students on college campuses, 62 percent are women. Women also earn 64 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to black students.

Historical data confirm the trend. In 1975, there were 577,000 black women and 523,000 black men enrolled in colleges, according to the U.S. Statistical Abstract. By 1993, the gap had widened to 909,000 black females enrolled compared to 636,000 black males.

The relative scarcity of black men in higher education has several economic and social consequences -- all of them bad.

In the future, workers without college educations will have fewer career options, even in industries in which employers want to diversify their workplaces. As a result, household incomes for many black men in that category may suffer later.

A dearth of black men on campuses also means that college-educated black women hoping to marry black men with similar educational backgrounds will find themselves remaining single longer -- or never marrying at all.

How to explain this intraracial gender gap? The wrong kind of peer pressure weighs on many young black males, starting in childhood. In some places, values are so skewed that refusal to achieve academically is taken as a badge of manhood.

Demographics also play a role. The number of college-age black men has been kept lower because of violence; homicide continues to be one of the leading causes of death for all black men. AIDS and HIV also claimed some who might have otherwise been college-bound. And, sadly, too many young black men have landed in the penal system rather than on campuses.

Solving the problem will be as complex as dissecting its origins. A variety of approaches should be encouraged, including mentorship programs and (more controversially) academically oriented all-male classrooms.

Programs like Allegheny County's Early Childhood Initiative, a $60 million effort aimed at doubling the number of poor children in high-quality child-care programs, could also help. It aims to give children a sound start in their first three years of life.

Key civic groups also have their role to play. The national Urban League recently kicked off the Campaign for African-American Achievement. The program will mobilize churches, social groups and schools to convince young people that academic achievement matters.

The stakes here are too high for pep talks to substitute for action. All sectors of society must work to encourage black men to enter, and complete, higher education.

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