Black and Endangered*: Reflections on my Upcoming Journey(s)
(OED) enˈdangered, adj. -- That is or has been exposed to danger.
I write this blog post before my big move to “The City” and in the wake of a sort of dark joke where the two crash together at a critical juncture.
I recall reading an article in The Atlantic that really got me thinking. It highlights that Black student college enrollment is up a significant amount over the past couple of decades. Initially, I celebrated because that’s pretty fantastic news; however, what those numbers obfuscate is that enrollment at top-tier R1 (research universities) institutions actually went down over the same time frame. What these findings mean is that while more Black students are enrolling in postsecondary education, most are opting for “speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees.”
I’m not here to suggest that there is anything wrong with attending such institutions--in fact, many students find them appealing because they are a lot cheaper, offer more flexibility, and usually don’t take as long. But in looking at persistence rates at these institutions (those who began at four-year colleges and universities graduated at about 63% compared to those at community or junior colleges at about 40%), I found myself wishing more Black students were enrolling at R1s or SLACs (small, liberal arts colleges).
College is a gauntlet though, I get that. And for some students, particularly those like myself from low-income and first-generation college backgrounds, the idea of going to college can be perplexing: “Get in debt for four years doing school all over again only to leave and be unable to find a decent paying job? Nah. I’ll pass.” For some it’s a hard sell because of this perceived loss, and for others, there are other things at play: e.g., recent racial climate conversations and issues in higher ed, diversity and representation, safety, etc.
So it appears that perhaps junior and community colleges offer some sort of compromise. They usually cost less, so whoever is paying the bill is a fan of that outcome; people tend to only spend a couple of years at these places if they progress appropriately through their program, so students like that; and it’s still college but offers more freedom to work or support family without the guilt a lot of first-generation, low-income students feel regarding “leaving home” for college.
Despite the story these numbers tell, a small percentage of Black students do end up at some of these R1s--the national average is about six percent (Rice currently sits at seven percent so WOOHOO, above average!). And in taking all of these figures into consideration, it is quite impressive that almost 25% of all Black individuals have a Bachelor’s degree while the percentage hovers around 40% for their white peers.
So then I got to thinking more...what about PhDs? I expected the numbers to taper off, but the numbers are quite lower than I initially anticipated: Blacks went on to earn almost five percent of all doctorate degrees awarded in 2015, while whites went on to earn a majority at 52%. These numbers would differ even more if the data separated out doctorates and PhDs granted by non-profit, research institutions as opposed to for-profit institutions like Walden that awarded the most doctorates to Black individuals between 2011 and 2015: a staggering 682. Furthermore, of the almost 327,000 people who took the GRE in 2015-2016, about 25,000 were Black and of that number about 7,000 were Black men. So of those *seriously considering* applying to graduate school soon, seven percent is Black and about two percent Black males. Again, these numbers taper off for those who pursue PhD programs.
Obviously this information wasn’t too particularly shocking. Throughout my experiences--educational, professional, and social--I am often times the only person in the room who looks like me. I’ve been conditioned to see that as the norm in some ways. Although my academic and professional interests often have me in spaces with a critical mass of other Black scholars and allies, the process and field are still overwhelmingly White.
Aside from being the only Black person in the program, the road and process can be exceptionally grueling for Black (and any minority) PhD students. While most of the experiences documented about graduate school lack intersectional perspective(s), they all paint a picture that unequivocally demands, drains, and challenges you only to spit you out into an unforgiving, over-saturated job market.
While this all may not sound particularly exciting or optimistic, these facets of the academe and the professoriate are precisely why I want to be a professor. In an article published in The Chronicle, data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System report that out of 100 faculty members, 75 are white and 5 are Black. With numbers like these and the apprenticeship model most PhD programs follow, I can quite easily see how difficult it is to find mentors who look like us, and discouraging to those of us who really need that piece of the puzzle. Who better to understand the struggles, the microaggressions and everyday slights, and emotional turmoil of Black students than Black faculty?
At the opening of this piece I mentioned that it was born out of pre-move reflection and a joke. The joke, which I called “sort of dark,” was in reference to the recent Chipotle illnesses and how I would keep my “Black and endangered” butt away from it for a while. While initially I was riffing on the countless and senseless murders of Black people (men in particular) across the country, I thought more critically about the ways in which I, and numerous other potential Black academics, are indeed “endangered.” Is it the low enrollment into R1 institutions that worries me? No, not really. College (or even advanced study) isn’t for everyone--though I stand by my belief that everyone is capable of getting a Bachelor’s degree. What truly endangers our prospects are the Black students like those I met in undergrad and at conferences who are so motivated and intelligent but feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Or who feel they don’t want to pursue higher education because they don’t see others like them doing it. Or because they simply want to escape the toxic environment undergrad was for them. Even more broadly than those dangers: imposter syndrome, stereotype threat, stigmatized mental health concerns...the list really goes on and on.
It’s a relatively small concern when you consider the problems of humanity at the current moment, but it's my motivation and mission to do what I can about it. Danger and all.
I have plenty of support and wonderful systems in place so this should not elicit any concerns from anyone. I’m good! :)
I also write this a couple of weeks before the MDSA/PHD Project conference--a conference devoted specifically to supporting minority PhD students in Business schools and the professoriate. So I do indeed have support on support.
#BlackGirlMagic is real and aside from paving the way for me to happen on this journey (and leading the pack in post-graduate degree attainment), 2 of my phenomenal graduate school advisors are incredibly brilliant and accomplished Black women. Giving all praises to God and Black Women.
Not all Black students (or people for that matter) are low-income, first-generation, etc. I am speaking specifically of myself and others who identify with these categories.
I also realize this piece reinforces a White/Black dichotomy while completely disregarding other races. For all intents and purposes of this specific writing, it was intentional. However, my scholarship, interests, and critical thinking are not restricted to that dichotomy.