More Black Men in Jail Than in College? Wrong

Show Me the Numbers: A 13-year-old report using questionable data gave rise to an enduring myth.

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Students at a Morehouse College commencement (Getty); prisoners at the Avon Park Correctional Facility (Getty)

JPI has yet to acknowledge that today the enrollment of black males in college is drastically different from when it published “Cellblocks or Classrooms.” If we replicated JPI’s analysis by downloading enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Post‐Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we would find a 108.5 percent jump in black male college enrollment from 2001 to 2011. The raw numbers show that enrollment of black males increased from 693,044 in 2001 to 1,445,194 in 2011.

About six years ago I wrote, “In 2000, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found evidence that more black men are in prison than in college,” in my first “Breaking Barriers” (pdf) report. At the time, I did not question the veracity of this statement. The statement fit well among other stats that I used to establish the need for more solution-focused research on black male achievement.

I was in good company. The same year, at a 2007 NAACP forum, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said, “We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.”

Both President Obama and I brought our own unique style to the line. I was deferential and academic, while President Obama was passionate and eloquent. In contrast, many people, like Charles Barkley, are reckless and aloof when they use the line. Recently he told Bob Costas, “You know, we as black people always, we don’t have respect for one another. You know, we’ve got more black men in prison than we do in college, and crime in our neighborhoods is running rampant.” In full context, Barkley was using the line to justify the need for armed defense against black men.

However, just as a Jheri curl would be wrong no matter how you dressed it up today, the line “There are more black men in jail than in college” is wrong no matter how you contextualize, qualify or articulate it.

Today there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and the best research evidence suggests that the line was never true to begin with. In this two-part entry in Show Me the Numbers, the Journal of Negro Education’s monthly series for The Root, I examine the dubious origins, widespread use and harmful effects of what is arguably the most frequently quoted statistic about black men in the United States.

Basis for the Myth

More than 10 years ago, the Justice Policy Institute released the report “Cellblocks or Classrooms.” While the report should have been a wake-up call to policymakers, one line resonated and echoed more than any other: “Nearly a third more African-American men are incarcerated than in higher education.”

In September 2012, in response to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s screening of the film Hoodwinked, directed by Janks Morton, JPI issued a press release titled, “JPI Stands by Data in 2002 on Education and Incarceration.” However, if one examines the IPEDS data from 2001 to 2011, it is clear that many colleges and universities were not reporting JPI’s data 10 years ago.

In 2011, 4,503 colleges and universities across the United States reported having at least one black male student. In 2001, only 2,734 colleges and universities reported having at least one black male student, with more than 1,000 not reporting any data at all. When perusing the IPEDS list of colleges with significant black male populations today but none reported in 2001, I noticed several historically black colleges and universities, including Bowie State University, and my own alma mater, Temple University. Ironically, I was enrolled at Temple as a doctoral candidate in 2001.

As a researcher who uses large data sets, I understand the inherent margin of error associated with such analysis. However, I do think that JPI shows arrogance and imprudence when it “stands by” its original findings today. The increase in black male college enrollment over the past 10 years is due to three primary factors: 1. IPEDS more precisely tracking enrollment (artificial gains), 2. social advancements (authentic gains) and 3. the rise of community and for-profit colleges (authentic gains).

Black male on Twitter: Son, there are more black men in Trenton State Prison than in every college in NJ [New Jersey]. This is a sad fact of the struggle. @toldson is wrong.

@toldson: NJ has 63 colleges that enroll 25,473 total black males. Essex CC [Community College] has most. The total (all race) prison population in NJ is 24,590.

Black male on Twitter: @toldson I suppose if we count 2 year institutes perhaps the numbers get better, but when I attend a class at Rutgers with 275, no way I should be of 1.

@toldson: This is the way. Rutgers has a student body of 52,471 and only 1,261 black males. My numbers aren’t always pretty, but they’re real.

Technology, costs, demographic shifts and emerging occupational requirements are creating fundamental changes in the higher-education landscape. In 2001 four HBCUs were among the top 10 for enrolling black males. In 2011 no HBCUs were in the top 10, and only one (Florida A&M University) was in the top 10.

The top 10 colleges for enrolling black males consist of three for-profit colleges, four community colleges and three public four-year institutions. The University of Phoenix online campus reported 847 black male students in 2001 and 21,802 in 2011, making it the nation’s top enroller of black male students. Second is Ashford University, which reported 23 black males in 2001 and 15,081 in 2011. 

Importantly, black male representation in higher education is proportional to black male representation in the adult population. However, lack of adequate guidance and academic rigor in high schools has resulted in black males being underrepresented at competitive universities like Rutgers and overrepresented at community colleges and online universities.

Consider this: If all 1,127,170 black males who were enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2010 eventually graduated, the total number of black males with college degrees would increase by 71 percent, nearly achieving parity with white males. However, we will not sufficiently support black male college students — nor college-bound students — if we simply keep perpetuating the myth that juxtaposes their needs with those of black males in the criminal-justice system.

Next week we examine the nation’s persistent problem with mass incarceration among black men and why it has little to do with black male presence at colleges and universities. We also outline some of the unintended consequences of spreading the myth, ultimately in order to start a new agenda to increase college persistence and reduce incarceration for black males.

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