September 15, 2013

SWAG Looks at Causes of Low Black Male Graduation Rate

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African-American male students may be graduating at a lower rate compared to their peers due to a lack of mentorship, money issues and family problems, according to research conducted by the African American Research Task Force and Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate.

For the Cornell class that entered in 2003, 75 percent of African-American male students graduated within six years. For the class that entered in 2007, that graduation rate rose to 83 percent.

SWAG, a student-run organization that works to increase the graduation rate of African-American male students through academic enrichment, professional development and community building, is continuing the research it started last year to determine what prevents some African American male students from graduating.

“We found that lack of mentorship, money issues and family problems are all factors,” Kendrick Coq ’15, SWAG co-president, said. “We’ve been working with the African American Research Task Force to compile data on effective retention strategies and see how the administration can help.”

Thaddeus Talbot ’15, SWAG co-president, said SWAG has “interviewed students on campus, and they said the lack of role models and black faculty is a factor.”

Renee Alexander ’74, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs, agreed, saying that Cornell has a limited number of African-American professors.

“The University is assertively recruiting and working to retain faculty and staff of color. Some of the factors that we work harder to mitigate are geographical location and competition from our peer institutions,” Alexander said. “Some people find it hard to adjust to our remote setting in central New York State. When you compare our numbers to [universities in] more urban locations like Columbia [University] and [the University of Pennsylvania], arguably, location might be a factor in their higher numbers of faculty of color.”

Coq and Talbot said one of their goals is to bring in guest speakers to serve as role models for the SWAG members.

“We look for notable people in society whose messages align with our goals,” Coq said.

Another one of SWAG’s initiatives is a mentorship program in which underclassmen are paired with upperclassmen. The mentor and mentee pairs are encouraged to meet with each other often and go to events together.

“Last year, we had lots of big events, but we’ve found that the intimate, micro-level is much more effective,” Talbot said.

At SWAG’s kick-off meeting Saturday morning, Stephen Breedon ’14, treasurer of SWAG, said race singles African American students out in a context of predomiately white students.

“When you step into a classroom, you’re the black dot. Not a lot of folks look like you. Take solace in the fact that the people in this room are going through the same thing. Think of SWAG as your base, your rock,” Breedon said.

Breedon outlined SWAG’s main goals for the year, such as increasing its membership and partnering with Career Services to provide professional opportunities to members. “It’s about making sure that you achieve and giving you the tools to succeed. The inflow of employers that want to hire us is tremendous,” Breedon said.

Dr. Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District, delivered a keynote address at the event, sharing his personal experience growing up as an African American in the educational system.

Brown said the country’s focus on standardized tests is one of the causes of the perceived African American achievement gap, since it prevents African Americans who did not have the resources needed to succeed on tests from being able to access extracurriculars and better education.

“In ninth grade, the principal pulled all the boys on the football team except for me off the field, because they hadn’t passed their Stanford nine standardized tests. I watched my friend, one of the smartest guys in the group, cry and walk off the field. He was never the same after that,” Brown said.

Speaking about the gap in educational achievement of African-American students, Talbot said the gap is not reflective of “our innate talent, ambitions or dreams.” Coq agreed, adding that the perceived black achievement gap is still evident at Cornell.

“The graduation rate of black men is increasing, but is still below the overall average at Cornell,” Coq said. Alexander, who has been supporting SWAG since its founding in 2011, said biases also play a key role in creating the achievement gap.

“These young men of color are at Cornell because they are high-achieving and academically successful. In my view, we should also be looking at structural causes of the achievement gap,” Alexander said. “African-American men can often be viewed through the lens of unconscious bias and stereotypes. My job is to support them as they move through the University.”

After Brown’s keynote address, a panel of upperclassmen shared their first-year experiences with freshmen in attendance. Aaron Hancock ’15 spoke about how much of an impact SWAG has had on him. “I almost transferred out of Cornell during my freshman year, but my SWAG mentor kept me here,” Hancock said.

Also in the audience was Eldred Harris, member of the Ithaca City School District’s Board of Education. “Adults have treated minorities as walking deficits for a long time, and it’s time to stop that. All children are smart. It’s our job to figure out how they’re smart,” Harris said.

Roberto Matos ’15, a member of SWAG for the past two years, said the responsibility to improve the gap rests upon those it affects. “I think it’s up to us to do something about the black achievement gap. SWAG is a form of empowerment,” he said. “Only we can be our own mentors. It’s up to us to be in control of our own destiny, and we are perfectly capable of doing it.”