Graduation rates among black men lag far behind rates for nearly all other demographic groups on campus, according to a report compiled by the University. Administrators say the redesign of the Office of Minority Affairs is aimed to support minority students, but some students remain skeptical about the efficacy of University efforts.
Cornell’s 2010 Undergraduate Graduation Rate Report, which analyzes rates over the past six years, states that only 75 percent of black male students who matriculated in 2003 graduated within six years, compared to 91 percent for their white counterparts. Black women, on the other hand, graduated at a rate of 92 percent.
Some students suggested that the administration could do more to address the specific concerns of black men on campus.
Zachary Murray ’11, co-chair of Black Students United, said black men at Cornell face particular challenges, including trends of poor secondary education, financial strain and a lack of confidence.
As a freshman, he said he felt nervous approaching professors or speaking up in class.
“There’s an added pressure of being pretty different. It’s a confidence thing,” Murray said.
Feelings of isolation and a lack of belonging often affect young black Cornellians, he said.
“For most kids our age, to come upstate means to go to college, at Cornell or Hamilton,” Murray said. “But for some black men it means to go to Attica [Correctional Facility] or MacCormick [Secure Center].”
Student groups — like the Men of Color Council — have been instrumental in providing support networks of friends and mentors and combating feelings of isolation among black men, Murray said.
Murray expressed hope that the University will provide more support for students with these problems, rather than putting the responsibility on student groups and individual professors to encourage struggling undergraduates to finish college.
Emphasizing the widespread nature of this problem, Vice Provost Barbara Knuth said the issue of low black male graduation rates is complex and therefore requires attention from many levels of society. She cited a 2006 study that established national graduation rates for black men at 36 percent.
Despite the fact that black men at Cornell graduate much more frequently than the national average, Knuth acknowledged that the University must continue efforts to support this particular demographic.
“In addition to the many underlying societal causes ... University efforts can address certain challenges, such as academic preparation and support, social support and financial support,” Knuth stated in an email.
She described the “reframing” of the Office of Minority Affairs, which will become the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, as a primary way of addressing the needs of minority groups on campus. Knuth said the leader of the new office will have increased authority and a place on the Provost’s staff. Another new position will be the Associate Dean of Students for Intercultural Programs.
“The programs that these offices will develop and implement, in partnership, will focus on providing necessary academic preparation ... and social support,” she said.
Knuth also emphasized the importance of the recent University efforts to increase grant funding and to reduce loan burdens on students and families.
“Cornell’s several generous financial aid initiatives in the past few years ... should help address some of the financial pressures that contribute to non-completion,” she stated.
Robert Bruce Slater, managing editor of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, also stressed that low graduation rates among black men is a nationwide problem.
Though not familiar with the specifics of Cornell’s situation, Slater described some possible pressures and problems facing black men on American university campuses.
“Did Cornell accept a lot of black men to play football who could not hack the rigors of Cornell academics?” Slater asked. “Were there a lot of black male students who didn’t have sufficient financial aid? Were there a lot of black students... who felt uncomfortable with the racial climate on campus? Were there some who had family problems or obligations that required them to leave school?”
He said that without looking at individuals’ cases, the reason for the shortfall at Cornell cannot be generalized. He added that mentoring and tutoring programs as well as financial aid counseling efforts could improve the problem.
When discussing possible improvements at the University, Zach Murray cited efforts at other institutions to target black men specifically, including the City University of New York’s Black Male Initiative, which focuses on “the inclusion and educational success of under-represented groups in higher education, in particular black males,” according to the CUNY website.
“I’d like to see Cornell institutionalize something like that here,” Murray said.
He also expressed concern that the recent institutional changes to the former Office of Minority Affairs were “just semantics,” rather than actual change. He suggested that the University organize forums to better understand issues facing black men, rather than acting without student input.
“I think it’s time they engage in a real conversation with students about how we deal with this” he said. “It’s time they took us on as partners.”
Murray said he was hopeful that students and staff would be able to create meaningful ways to help students overcome challenges and overcome negative stereotypes — which he said many Cornell men have been doing on their own for years.
“I think that there’s a stereotype that black men are not serious about education,” he said. “Time and time again I’ve seen that disproved.”