The Atlanta Journal-Constitution By Ernie Suggs
It is not hard for Rodney Perry to stand out on the campus of Clark Atlanta University.
Impeccably dressed in all black and a crisp white shirt, he brushes back his shoulder-length dreadlocks as he mingles and laughs with fellow students on a recent freezing Wednesday morning.
A freshman class president straight out of central casting, Perry is part of a harder-to-find breed on college campuses — particularly historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — a man.
Women outnumber men 3-to-2 at black colleges, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. At the 100 accredited HBCUs, 61.5 percent of the students are women, up from 53 percent in 1976 and exceeding the overall national average of 56 percent. Ten percent of black males who attend college go to an HBCU, most of which are located in the South.
“Women are very motivated to pursue education. Their ambition is fueled by advancement,” said Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, an umbrella organization of private HBCUs. “Black women get it, but for whatever reason, that same impetus hasn’t been happening with African-American men, or with men, period.”
Experts and students say black men are less prepared than their female counterparts for the rigors of college, face tougher financial hurdles, have fewer role models to inspire them to further their educations, and are less likely to ask for academic or financial assistance.
In addition, of the black males who make it to an HBCU, only 29 percent will graduate within six years, which is worse than the 33 percent national average of black males at all colleges. Nationally, the six-year graduation rate is 57 percent.
“We have gone from a situation where more males were in schools than females, and the trend seems to be continuing,” said Meldon Hollis, associate director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
But Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an umbrella organization of public HBCUs, said the country is now seeing the results of programs created to address gender parity.
“I don’t know if we should try to reverse that,” Taylor said, “but there should not be such a disparity between men and women, especially when there is a black male crisis.”
In 2011, a report issued by Education Week showed that while the 72 percent high school graduation rate was the highest in decades, blacks were graduating at a paltry 57 percent clip. And while the overall black unemployment rate is around 15 percent, college-educated black men who are working still make far less than their white counterparts.
In Georgia, black males make up about 14 percent of the overall population.
The gender gap is magnified at CAU, where a staggering 74 percent of the students are female. Last fall, as the school welcomed one of the largest freshman classes in history — more than 1,000 — fewer than 100 were men.
“This is a national problem. What you see at CAU is a microcosm of education,” CAU Provost Joseph H. Silver Sr. said.
Why the gender gap?
Getting ready for an 11 a.m. class, Perry nods to every other guy he sees. He can’t help but know them all and said many came to get away from rocky home environments. The 18-year-old business major from Jackson, Tenn., was encouraged by his mother to move away.
“Being from a small place and having the ambitions that I had, I wanted to get away,” Perry said. “Everything that colleges are doing now should be attractive to men. But things like grades, finances and parental pressures are stopping a lot of men.”
Having ambition is only part of the battle. For every Perry, there are dozens with little hope of getting where he is.
“The literature is clear where this starts. Not the first year of college or the first year of high school, but the third grade,” Silver said. “If we don’t address it then, by the ninth grade they are preparing to drop out. Socially, we have allowed black males to have a bye in being held accountable for their actions and future.”
Across campus in a media law class, Ahshia Juss from New Orleans tells a story about how generations of her family went to college. Next to her, Destiney Mathis of Atlanta brags that she will be the first person in her family to earn a degree. Both have brothers. Neither tried to go to college and were not pressured by family members.
“Mothers raise their daughters and love their sons,” said University of Georgia counseling professor Deryl Bailey. “I will not say it is a piece of cake for black females, but the obstacles that impact males are more difficult.”
And even when black men get to college, there are temptations to take another path.
Curshawn Bussey, a senior from Atlanta, has had to fight the urge to drop out of CAU when lucrative — albeit freelance — jobs in television and news photography were offered.
“My brother stays on me every day about staying in college,” Bussey said, “and every morning when I get out of bed to go to class, I know someone else is getting out of bed to go to work.”
But the biggest challenge might be finances. CAU, which is a private school, charges around $30,000 annually. In-state students at Georgia State University pay less than $5,000 per semester.
The standard for attracting black males — by the very nature of its founding and mission — is Morehouse College, the country’s only black all-male school. This month, school officials were in Milwaukee recruiting students and partnering with corporations to help pay for their educations.
“We have great name recognition, so when we go to towns, people are excited to hear from us,” Dean of Admissions Kevin Williams said.
The school generally enrolls between 700 and 800 students through 2,600 applications, although enrollment is slightly down this year, which Williams blames on the sagging economy.
“State schools are competition because of the financial aspect,” Williams said.
It’s an issue that CAU officials understand well. Silver said it was a “buyer’s market,” and if CAU can be “competitive financially, we can attract the best and the brightest.” But CAU, like many HBCUs, struggles to provide scholarship money to students, 96 percent of whom are on some form of financial aid.
“The president has asked us to have a more focused approach to recruitment, scholarship and retention of black males, so we will see some changes soon,” said Silver, who retired from the University System of Georgia in 2006.
The dating game
The diversity at CAU is sometimes hard to find.
Take James McJunkins’ media arts class, where all of the students are female. Tahajah Samuels, a 20-year-old mass media major in the class, said she rarely has a class with more than three men.
Aside from the academic and cultural problems the gender imbalance creates, there are also simple social problems, such as dating.
“It can be unfortunate for the girls in terms of social life, because it almost feels like we are overpopulated,” said Carmella Baldwin, a senior from Detroit and the reigning Miss CAU. “And with dating, it is always, ‘You don’t want to talk to such-and-such, because he has already talked to so-and-so.’”
But for guys, it is golden.
“I can honestly say, being around so many accomplished women makes you very comfortable,” Perry said.
To address the imbalance, CAU has instituted a series of programs designed specifically for men.
“We have created an environment here were we preach success,” said Silver, noting Perry, who defeated three freshman women to become class president, “but these students are few and far between.”
Highest percentage of women at HBCUs in fall 2010
School Women as Total black
Coppin State University 76.6 4,212
University of Virgin Islands 74.8 2,464
Xavier University 74.5 2,863
Southern University at Shreveport 74.1 3,627
Dillard University 72.7 1,141
Southern University at New Orleans 72.5 3,627
Morehouse College of Medicine 71.6 268
Clark Atlanta University 71.3 3,846
Winston-Salem State University 69.3 5,607
Note: Atlanta’s Spelman College and Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., are 100 percent female.
Georgia HBCUs and the percentage of women
School Women as Number of
percentage black students
Spelman College 100 2,083
Clark Atlanta University 71.3 3,846
Morehouse College of Medicine 71.6 268
Albany State University 67.1 4,606
Paine College 63.7 1,082
Savannah State University 57.3 4,024
Fort Valley State University 56.7 4,042
Interdenominational Theological Center 45.6 447
Morehouse College* 0 2,706
Source: U.S. Department of Education data provided by American Council on Education