The social and academic success of African American (AA) students within our current educational system continues to be an elusive goal. Social success deals with the idea of being wanted in the environment – the belief that you actually matter. Academic success is the A, B, Cs – the appropriate matriculation through the system. In any environment, the academic and social should be closely partnered. There is a convincing positive correlation between social engagement and academic success for all students. This suggests that students who feel comfortably accepted in their environment tend to perform better academically.
There is huge difference between being comfortably accepted and attempting to be accepted, or attempting to belong. Current data demonstrates that AA students who aggressively “attempt to belong” show lower levels of academic success than those who do not. It would suggest therefore, that part of ethnic minority student lack of success may lie in the amount of energy focused toward the polar opposites of engagement or disengagement from the social environment to the predominantly white institution (PWI). Notice, I am not talking about the act of engagement or non-engagement, but the amount of energy employed in the process…energy that may be better spend on academic pursuits. Students who actively and aggressively alienate themselves from the predominantly white environment as well as those who try to fully engage seem to be less successful than those negotiate between those two poles.
Many reasons have been put forward as part-explanations for the high drop-out/stop-out rates of AAs at PWIs. These include financial insolvency, feelings of marginalization, low academic preparedness, coming from single-parent or broken homes, et cetera. It is also true that despite these challenges, many AA students are successful. The question, from a strengths-perspective becomes; “What factors can be identified as responsible for success in this population?”
Felice (2006) interviewed 10 first-generation, sophomore, AA male students at a Midwestern PWI, to determine the skills that each indentified as responsible for his success. Students were interviewed independently. Themes were then drawn from each interview and collapsed.
Results indicated that successful male AA students;
- found/created social enclaves within the environment of the university,
- only engaged with the university to get specific needs satisfied,
- retained very close ties with their home environment (parents and/or friends),
- suggested that they saw themselves as representatives of friends, family, or cultural group that did not have that opportunity, and
- were committed to a sense of deferred gratification – each was going through current discomfort for a better tomorrow.
The creation of social enclaves and the strong retention of ties to home and family, run counter to Tinto’s (1997) assertion that students who transition successfully invest time and energy in attempting to assimilate into the larger culture. Successful AA students find a safe space.
This study does not reject Tinto’s findings. It simply suggests that this may not be the process for successful AA students at PWIs. If AA students do not see the potential for reward in their efforts to engage they would, quite justifiably, find spaces of emotional security until better could be done. We may, therefore, consider creating the environment for the development of these social enclaves.
In another study looking at AA versus White students’ feelings of connection to the university, Felice (2009) found that;
- 51% of White students interviewed indicated that they attend sporting and other University events versus 8.8% of Black students
- 67% of White students indicated that they wear their school colors around campus versus 21% of Black students
- 97% of White students felt themselves very connected to the University versus 62% of Black students, and
- 72% of White students identified themselves as a (mascot name placed here) through and through versus 25% of Black students.
It is interesting to note that despite feelings of disconnect, 40% of Black respondents suggested that they would consider giving money back to the University versus 49% of White. Additionally, of the population interviewed, only 14% of White students identified themselves as first-generation versus 55% of Black students. This is of particular interest because a very different posture must be taken in engaging first generation students versus second-generation students – despite ethnicity.
Readiness for Academic Engagement:
There is also the concept of readiness for academic engagement – and the social culture that that perception breeds on campus.
It is true that many of our AA students do not enter colleges and universities with the necessary level academic skill acquisition and academic competence as determined by the accepting institution.
- This is many. This is not all. Many and all are two very different words, and as there is no way to identify the difference within the institution it raises everybody’s anxiety.
- This is also very true of many white students. Yet it is not accompanied by the anxiety of the null hypothesis.
- Although the numbers of under-academically prepared white students is probably much higher than Black students, the percentages are much lower. For example: If we have twenty out of one-hundred AA students under-prepared (20%), that is a much higher percentage than the three hundred out of ten thousand white students (3%).
- This truth and perception leads to inter- and intra-anxiety amongst AA students and how they perceive themselves to be perceived by whites and each other. You begin to observe these students separating “themselves from themselves” on campus. There is a lack of acknowledgement of each other in classes and on campus.
This separation of self from self is what I call the “Affirmative Action baby” syndrome. It seems as if AA students, particularly males, are saying to themselves: “I am not an Affirmative Action baby. You may be.” This area needs more research.
Notice we are talking about the emotional anxiety around the perception of academic preparedness. The question therefore is “How do we shift that perception?” Given that perceptions are very well defended (stubborn), our positive changes must be aggressively marketed.
Demanding a Better Product…or Else:
Last time I checked, academic readiness for full inclusion into our environment was the forte of the high schools. It is from these high schools that we draw our product. If the quality of the product is not as we would wish, we have four options.
- We accept the product. Once we accept the product, knowing that it has deficits, it is our responsibility to fill those gaps. We have accepted the responsibility.
- We demand a better product from our wholesalers. We do have the choice here of engaging in the preparation of the product, relative to our needs.
- We expand our recruiting umbrella. In this instance, we search-out and create relationships with competing wholesalers. We no longer offer our current wholesalers the comfort of sending us sub-quality products.
- We establish our own wholesale producers. In this instance, we actually establish a high school which meets the requirements for full inclusion into our environment.
The question becomes: “How do we attain a sense of inclusivity while retaining academic excellence?” This will be the topic of another piece.