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(The Root) — U.S. census data show that when you look at Americans ages 15 to 25, there are 3.9 million fewer white males now than there were in 1970, and 2.5 million more black males. So why do we so often hear phrases like, "The reality is … African-American males are a dying breed"? (And have you ever noticed that "breed," "extinct" and "endangered" are terms reserved for animals and black males?)

Questioning such notions, which are not based on fact but are repeated so often that they have been treated as gospel truth, is the mission of Show Me the Numbers. This new monthly series, published in association with Howard University's Journal of Negro Education, of which I am editor-in-chief, will provide a big-picture analysis of some of the most pressing educational and social issues facing African Americans. The series will also break down national data to dispel common myths and challenge conventional wisdom about education in black America.

To begin the series, let's examine the attainment of four-year college degrees among black males in the U.S. — the facts, not the myths. What is acceptable, and where will it stand at the end of the decade?

Editor's note: For all statistical analyses, unless otherwise noted, Toldson used the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS), which consists of 66 high-precision samples of the U.S. population drawn from 16 federal censuses, and the American Community Surveys (ACS) of 2000-2010. Where the notation "(Ruggles, et al)" is given, the data come from Ruggles S., Alexander J.T., Genadek K., Goeken R., Schroeder M.B., Sobek M.; Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 (machine-readable database), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota; 2010.

Black Men in College: Is There a Crisis?

Recently, several news sources documented the abysmal underrepresentation of black males in colleges and universities in the United States. Earlier this year, many people interested in black male achievement forwarded online the Observer-Dispatch article from which the "dying breed" characterization came: "Report: 4 Percent of College Students Are Black Males." The article covers the laudable quest of Utica College to recruit more minority and low-income students.

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In an apparent attempt to draw in readers, the article's title was derived from a 2010 Council of the Great City Schools report, which, according to the author, found that "only 4 percent of college students are black males." The number given by the CGCS is actually 5 percent (pdf), as reported by Trip Gabriel of the New York Times. Nevertheless, the Times issued a correction for saying that it was "just 5 percent," which implies a deficit.

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Here is why a correction was in order: IPUMS data show that today, the nation's 12.7 million black men 18 years old and older make up 5.5 percent of the adult population in the U.S., and the 76.4 million white men in the same age range make up 32.7 percent. According to the 2010 census, 1.2 million black male college students make up 5.5 percent of all college students, while the 5.6 million white male students make up 27 percent (or should we say "just" 27 percent?) (Ruggles, et al).

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The Facts Are Bad Enough. Let's at Least Get Them Right

Black males are not underrepresented in colleges and universities (as for whether they're underrepresented among college graduates, we'll get to that shortly).

I am certain that this statement will be met with tremendous skepticism. Many news stories about black men point to unemployment, high school dropout rates and incarceration, so in the face of such negative tidings, the idea that black male representation on college campuses is population-consistent will seem far-fetched to most.

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In addition, most of us have heard that black-female-to-black-male ratios at HBCUs are as high as 12-to-1. Well, the true ratio is 1.75-to-1. Coppin State University is the only HBCU that has a ratio that exceeds 3-to-1 (it is 3.3-to-1, to be exact).

Still, there's no denying that the situation for black men in the United States is tenuous. Although 45 percent of black men 25 and older have attempted college, only 16 percent have a four-year degree — half the percentage of white males who have a four-year degree, as Lorenzo Esters and I report in The Quest for Excellence (pdf). Black males are incarcerated at a rate that is seven times the rate for white males (pdf) and are more likely than any other race group to be victims of a violent crime, including homicide.

Black people need not be insulated from their harsh realities, but many of the reported figures and statistics about black people are poorly sourced, outdated, out of context and not factual. For instance, the first paragraph of Russell Simmons' Huffington Post article "Black Male Multiple Choice: Unemployed, High School Dropout or Incarcerated" is replete with errors. Here, Simmons writes, "Black men represent 8 percent of the population of the United States but comprise 3 percent of all college undergrads." (Does this sound familiar?) In total, the first paragraph weaves about 10 rogue statistics that together make black men and boys seem hopeless and beyond repair.

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The idea that black males are completely disaffected and beyond any reasonable efforts to remediate is an attitude that I frequently encounter when I train school leaders and educational administrators. In my opinion, the cynicism and apathy among people who work with black boys are far more threatening to our future than the black male issues so ominously dramatized by the media.

Numbers Worth Repeating: Let's Reach 20 Percent by 2020

So far we have learned that black males' representation in college is proportional to their representation in the general population, yet the attainment of four-year college degrees among adult black males is only 16 percent. Meanwhile, 20 percent of black females and 32 percent of white males have completed college. 

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This image was lost some time after publication.

Source: Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D.

However, there is a silver lining. Every decade, the number and percentage of black men who earn a college degree increases. In 1990 the proportion of black males over age 25 who had completed college was 11.1 percent. By year 2000 it was 13.2 percent, and by 2010, 15.8 percent had completed college (Ruggles et al).

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Where will we be in 2020? If we round the percentages of past decades to 11, 13 and 16 respectively and then apply simple trend logic to the pattern (+2 percentage points between 1990 and 2000, and +3 percentage points between 2000 and 2010), could we be at be +4, or 20 percent, by 2020?

Another way to predict where we'll be by 2020 would be to take the average percent increase or decrease over the past 50 years and add to the 2010 figure, which would yield 19 percent by 2020. Whatever the method, the trends clearly show that by the year 2020, about 1 in 5 black men in the U.S. over the age of 24 could have at least a bachelor's degree from a four-year college or university.

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 As with any forecast, the true rate of black male college graduation in 2020 could be more or less than projected. Many opportunities in the United States could help us make or exceed the mark, and many threats could make us miss it. We could be on the verge of witnessing exponential growth, stagnation or regression in black male achievement. All of these are issues that require our deepest contemplation.

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What It Takes to Get Us There

First, the black community should desist with the attitude that the black race is constantly going backward. There is essentially no objective evidence that black males are more prone to failure today than in previous generations. Today, young black males drop out of high school less and enroll in college more than any other generation in history.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the status dropout rate for black males in 2010 was 9 percent, compared with about 20 percent in 2000 (pdf). If you are confused because you thought 50 percent of black males drop out of high school, read more about the black male graduation rate and why some measures don't fully account for those who graduate later than their freshman-year cohort.

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Yet young black males are subject to an educational system that is in an identity crisis. They are being expelled and arrested for behaviors that were considered normal adjustment issues years ago, and they take high-stakes and standardized tests that are of questionable validity and reliability. And yes, the high school dropout rate for black males is twice as high as the dropout rate for white males.

Notwithstanding, black males enroll in college at a rate that is comparable to that of white males. In fact, if all 1.2 million black males who are currently enrolled in undergraduate programs eventually graduated, the total number of black males with college degrees would increase by 71 percent, nearly achieving parity with white males. However, college-completion rates among black males are dismal, particularly at community colleges and for-profit universities.

To make sure at least 20 percent of black males have a college degree by 2020, we need to move beyond merely getting black males into college. We need proactive strategies to prepare them to compete at universities that have a record of retaining and graduating black males.

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Too often, black males with respectable high school academic records are shoved off to community colleges, which generally have very low completion rates. Today, of the 1.2 million black males currently enrolled in college, more than 529,000 (42.8 percent) are attending community colleges, compared with only 11 percent who attend HBCUs (pdf). Another 11 percent of black males attend for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix, which as a single institution enrolls the largest number of black males in the nation.

To get on the right track, we need to focus on the following:

* Improving counseling and advisement in predominantly black high schools

* Providing mentorship and internships for first-generation college students

* Ensuring that every high school has a college-bound curriculum

* Sponsoring college tours

* Supporting black male initiatives in college

* Advocating for funding for Pell Grants and needs-based scholarships

* Advocating for universal access to public institutions of higher education and historically black colleges and universities

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More details about these strategies are outlined in The Quest for Excellence (pdf). We will also cover many of these issues throughout the Show Me the Numbers series in the months to come.

What do you think? Will more than 20 percent of black males in the U.S. have a four-year college degree by 2020, or are the social, economic and educational challenges in the U.S. too great? Will having 20 percent of African-American men college-educated make a difference in the black community, or will the achievement gap between white and black men still be too large? Let us know in the comment area below!

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. He can be contacted at itoldson@howard.edu.

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Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.