Why Are Minority Girls More Likely Than Boys to Graduate High School and Attend College?

As academic trend continues, White House launches initiative to support and empower minority males

U.S. President Barack Obama is photographed with elementary aged children at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington on December 21, 2009.  
National Journal
Emily Deruy, Fusion
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Emily DeRuy, Fusion
Feb. 27, 2014, 10:49 a.m.

“I don’t want my sis­ters to fol­low what I’ve gone through.”

Yay­ud­in Seid, 17, sits in the fourth-floor con­fer­ence room of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Lat­in Amer­ic­an Youth Cen­ter (LAYC). The Ethiopi­an high school seni­or is on a path to­ward col­lege and a ca­reer in bio­chem­istry, but it wasn’t al­ways that way. A few short years ago, the thought of pur­su­ing high­er edu­ca­tion was an in­com­pre­hens­ible ab­stract and he was more in­ter­ested in what he now calls out­side “dis­trac­tions.”

“I didn’t know what col­lege would do to my life,” Seid said. “I didn’t even know what ‘GPA’ meant!”

He im­mig­rated to the United States from Ethiopia as a 10-year-old and now lives with his par­ents and three young­er sis­ters in an apart­ment in the city. His moth­er, he said, is al­ways “so proud” to hear about someone suc­ceed­ing in col­lege, but she and her hus­band aren’t in a po­s­i­tion to help their chil­dren nav­ig­ate the com­plic­ated col­lege ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess. It’s not something either of his par­ents are fa­mil­i­ar with and they’re both busy work­ing care­taker jobs to sup­port the fam­ily.

That’s where the LAYC stepped in. Seid heard about the youth cen­ter from a friend and was hooked after at­tend­ing a Christ­mas party sev­er­al years ago. Now, he’s part of sev­er­al pro­grams the cen­ter runs to help young people suc­ceed. One pro­gram en­cour­ages teens to brain­storm and im­ple­ment ideas to make their com­munit­ies safer. An­oth­er is aimed at pre­vent­ing the spread of STDs. The cen­ter has helped him find sum­mer jobs and vo­lun­teer op­por­tun­it­ies that add to the re­sume they helped him craft as part of his col­lege ap­plic­a­tions. Last sum­mer, they helped him par­ti­cip­ate in a pro­gram at nearby Geor­getown Uni­versity, which gave him his first taste of what a col­lege cam­pus has to of­fer.

Lost Boys

A quick glance at high school dro­pout rates and col­lege at­tend­ance levels over the past few dec­ades re­veals an in­creas­ingly rosy pic­ture. Few­er kids are quit­ting high school and more young people are mak­ing their way to col­lege.

The story looks es­pe­cially pos­it­ive for His­pan­ic youth. High school dro­pout rates have roughly halved since 2000, and His­pan­ic high school gradu­ates are now more likely than whites to en­roll in col­lege.

But the num­bers mask an alarm­ing fact: boys aren’t mak­ing the same strides as girls.

More than three in five de­grees awar­ded to His­pan­ics in 2009 were earned by wo­men, and the ra­tio ap­pears to be grow­ing. There’s also a dis­par­ity when it comes to Afric­an-Amer­ic­an young people.

What’s go­ing on?

Minor­ity boys ex­per­i­ence a unique set of “chal­lenges,” Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Arne Duncan told re­port­ers Monday morn­ing at the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“It’s a heads up for what the real world looks like,” Seid said.

Afric­an-Amer­ic­an and Latino young men are dis­pro­por­tion­ately likely to grow up in poverty and fall in­to the school-to-pris­on pipeline.

Teach­er di­versity is low and minor­ity kids are dis­pro­por­tion­ately likely to grow up in fath­er­less homes, Duncan said.

Con­sider this:

More than 80 per­cent of the bach­el­or’s de­grees in edu­ca­tion awar­ded dur­ing the 2009-10 school year were to non-Latino white stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Col­leges for Teach­er Edu­ca­tion. Three-quar­ters went to wo­men, and only 4.2 per­cent went to Lati­nos.

Kids tend to do best when they can look to someone from a sim­il­ar back­ground as a role mod­el.

Dex­ter Voisin, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Chica­go who has stud­ied urb­an youth closely, calls that “eth­nic re­flec­tion” and says it’s very im­port­ant. Not that a ment­or has to be from a sim­il­ar back­ground or be the same eth­ni­city, but it can help vul­ner­able kids con­nect.

Young boys aren’t see­ing many of those pos­it­ive mod­els they can re­late to at home or at school.

A Call To Ac­tion

A White House event on Thursday aims to look at ways to help young men of col­or suc­ceed. Called “My Broth­er’s Keep­er,” it will cre­ate a “pub­lic-private part­ner­ship” to sup­port young men through high school and in­to high­er edu­ca­tion.

The ef­fort has back­ing from the An­nie E. Ca­sey Found­a­tion, the At­lantic Phil­an­throp­ies, Bloomberg Phil­an­throp­ies and oth­ers. White House of­fi­cials said that busi­ness lead­ers from Sam’s Club, Amer­ic­an Ex­press and Mc­Don­ald’s have also offered their sup­port. The ad­min­is­tra­tion, led by As­sist­ant to the Pres­id­ent and Cab­in­et Sec­ret­ary Bro­d­er­ick John­son, will cre­ate a task force to eval­u­ate dif­fer­ent ap­proaches, from ment­or­ship and provid­ing in­form­a­tion about fin­an­cial aid and col­lege ap­plic­a­tions to ju­ven­ile justice re­form, and then work to help loc­al or­gan­iz­a­tions in­tro­duce ef­fect­ive prac­tices on the ground.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has poin­ted to the suc­cess of Chica­go non­profit Youth Guid­ance’s Be­com­ing a Man pro­gram as an ex­ample of a pro­gram get­ting pos­it­ive res­ults.

Wendy Fine, dir­ect­or of re­search, eval­u­ation and tech­no­logy for the group, said “The things [Duncan] men­tioned are prob­ably the things we no­tice most,” re­fer­ring to the single-par­ent house­holds and lack of teach­er di­versity.

She ad­ded that the kids her or­gan­iz­a­tion works with tend to come from the lower end of the in­come scale, and neigh­bor­hoods with high­er rates of vi­ol­ence and un­em­ploy­ment.

But so do the girls. What else is at play?

No Girls Al­lowed

Seid agrees that things are harder for minor­ity boys.

“That’s what so­ci­ety thinks,” he said. When pressed to elab­or­ate, he said so­ci­ety ex­pects young men of col­or to be­come in­volved in vi­ol­ence and to fail at school, and it be­comes a self-ful­filling proph­ecy of sorts. So­ci­ety ex­pects girls to study.

Juan Guevara, a 16-year-old El Sal­vadorean teen who also spends his af­ter­noons at the LAYC, agrees.

It’s “harder for guys to study,” he said.

Voisin says that while girls grow up in the same house­holds, their “ex­pos­ure to vi­ol­ence is dif­fer­ent.” Girls are seen as more vul­ner­able and watched more closely. They spend the bulk of their time at school or at home. Boys are more likely to spend a good chunk of time in the com­munity, with their peers, which leaves them more open to in­volve­ment in things like gang vi­ol­ence.

Fine said the girls and boys she sees tend to re­act to situ­ations dif­fer­ently - boys gen­er­ally act out while girls in­tern­al­ize things.

That may have re­per­cus­sions when it comes to school dis­cip­line, with minor­ity boys be­ing far more likely to end up in the “school-to-pris­on” pipeline. Part of that has to do with what the ad­min­is­tra­tion has said is schools some­times jump­ing to dial 911 be­fore work­ing through a situ­ation, par­tic­u­larly with young minor­ity men.

Voisin agrees. He also ad­ded that kids grow­ing up in vi­ol­ent and stress­ful situ­ations can ex­per­i­ence high rates of anxi­ety and de­pres­sion. Some­times, he said, their ac­tions are viewed as “prob­lem­at­ic be­ha­vi­ors rather than symp­toms of stress.” Girls, he ad­ded, with­draw and are more likely to be over­looked at school.

So what can be done to close the gap between girls and boys when it comes to high school gradu­ation and col­lege en­roll­ment?

Clos­ing The Di­vide

The pres­id­ent has already en­cour­aged col­leges to do a bet­ter job of reach­ing out to minor­ity, low-in­come stu­dents and urged schools to ree­valu­ate how they dis­cip­line stu­dents.

Guevara, who says his grades have im­proved with tu­tor­ing and home­work help at LAYC, says help­ing young men com­plete their school work is the most help­ful thing for him. Seid says com­munity pro­grams that give young people a sense of em­power­ment and com­munity, like the one aimed at end­ing com­munity vi­ol­ence, pay off.

“Without the cen­ter, I’d prob­ably be in­volved in things I shouldn’t be in­volved in,” he said, not want­ing to elab­or­ate.

Fine says ment­or­ship is key, as is point­ing out how pos­it­ive ac­tions now, like at­tend­ance at school, can pay off later, with a col­lege ac­cept­ance let­ter. Voisin says ca­reer days can be es­pe­cially ef­fect­ive in show­ing kids what their fu­ture might hold, par­tic­u­larly when known and suc­cess­ful mem­bers of the loc­al com­munity par­ti­cip­ate.

The is­sue is tricky, though. Not all young men of col­or have the same life ex­per­i­ences or chal­lenges, and they’re not all go­ing to re­spond pos­it­ively to the same type of out­reach.

But Voisin said re­search has shown some meth­ods work across the spec­trum.

“We know that there are cer­tain meas­ures that sup­port pos­it­ive youth de­vel­op­ment across the board,” Voisin said. “Ment­or­ing is one of the greatest pro­tect­ive factors.”

He’s happy the is­sue is get­ting at­ten­tion and that or­gan­iz­a­tions like Be­com­ing a Man ex­ist and are help­ing change “group norms,” but cau­tions that out­reach needs to go bey­ond help­ing a young man fill out a fin­an­cial aid form and send­ing him on his way.

“A lot of these kids have so­cio-emo­tion­al needs and they go to col­lege and they don’t re­main there,” Voisin said, “be­cause some of their un­der­ly­ing needs are not ad­dressed.”

Ac­know­ledging that these young men have unique needs that aren’t be­ing fully met is a step in the right dir­ec­tion.

Seni­or ad­viser to the pres­id­ent Valer­ie Jar­rett said dur­ing a call with re­port­ers that “when we let these boys fall through the cracks, we’re crip­pling our abil­ity to reach our po­ten­tial as a na­tion.”

This art­icle is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from Fu­sion, a TV and di­git­al net­work that cham­pi­ons a smart, di­verse and in­clus­ive Amer­ica. Fu­sion is a part­ner of Na­tion­al Journ­al and The Next Amer­ica. Fol­low the au­thor on Twit­ter: @Emily_­DeR­uy

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