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Confronting the Challenge of Black Male College Graduation Rates


Twenty-one years ago, representatives of the Foundation and the Minnesota Private College Council (MPPC) got together to explore ways the Foundation’s previous 30+ years of scholarship support might be put to better use. From these meetings, they hatched the Phillips Scholars Program, a new and unique scholarship program that supports students interested in service, giving back and leadership development. Last November, we celebrated the first 20 years of the program with a reunion of sorts that brought together past leaders, college representatives and over 30 past scholars. The scholars shared stories of what the program has meant to them and the ways it has impacted their lives back when they were students and even today. Profound things were shared, and reminiscing led to much laughter and a few tears. The impact, although not measured in the aggregate, was quite clear: the Phillips Scholars Program is a powerful, life-altering opportunity for its recipients.

Unfortunately, of the nearly 120 Scholars, very few have been men of color. The program does a tremendous job of reaching young women of color, but it has been challenged to reach male applicants and rarely African American men. In an effort to attract more men of color, MPCC made tweaks to the application process, encouraged campus reps to nominate men of color, did additional outreach, and so on. Nothing changed. So we knew it was time to try something different. We met with representatives from the MPPC and asked the question: What would a leadership development scholarship for black male students look like? We knew that whatever we did, it had to be meaningful and substantive.

Wisely, the MPCC pulled a group of African American and campus leaders together in November of 2014 to reflect on and respond to this question. The goal of that conversation was to identify ideas that could shape a new scholarship opportunity that would attract and retain male African American college students. What came out of that conversation was a series of recommendations for how to structure a scholarship that was based on three critical criteria: leadership development, access to opportunity and retention supports. With these recommendations, MPCC went away and developed the Eddie Phillips Scholars Program for African American Men, named in honor of the grandson of Jay and Rose Phillips and a successful businessman and philanthropist here in the Twin Cities.

Archie Givens, President and CEO of Legacy Management and Development Corp was long-time friend of Eddie’s. Said Mr. Givens, “Eddie always believed a good education was an essential ingredient for a good life. He and his family greatly valued education and he believed it was important to advocate for young people who might be at a disadvantage such as minority students.”

It is important to understand why this program is especially critical today. According to 2013 data from the U.S. Department of Education, the black male post-secondary graduation rate is 39%, far below the white student rate of 69%. Black women graduate at a 48% rate. While 15% of the college student population is black, black women outnumber black men on college campuses by nearly two to one, which puts the percentage of African American men enrolled in undergraduate institutions at about 5.5%. Estimates put the black male population 18 years and older at about 5.5% of the total U.S. population. The impact of only a little more than a third of these earning a degree is the potential for less earning power over their lives and less access to higher paying professions than their white counterparts and even black women.

What we heard loud and clear from those gathered last November was that for black male students to successfully complete college, some of them need intentional campus supports, exposure to opportunities, mentoring with a purpose, and leadership development experiences. These form the basis of the Eddie Phillips Scholars program. The program is a two-year pilot to test out these concepts. Three scholars have been selected:

  • Malik Ceesay is a theater and education major at Augsburg College. He graduated from Brooklyn Center High school and is involved in the Save the Kids Organization on campus.
  • Zach Nelson is a business/management major at Concordia University, St. Paul. He graduated from Fridley High School and is involved in coaching and mentoring youth.
  • David Peterson is an accounting major at Hamline University. A graduate of Eagan High School, he is a member of the PRIDE Black Student Alliance, Black Men’s Circle and the NCORE Team at Hamline.

The Spokesman-Recorder highlighted the Scholars in a recent article.

The specific components of the program include:

  • Abdul Omari has been hired to design and deliver a for-credit leadership course for the scholars, and will provide ongoing advising and leadership to the students over the next two years. Dr. Omari recently completed his Doctorate of Philosophy in Comparative and International Development Education from the University of Minnesota.
  • Each student will have an on-campus mentor who will check in with the students weekly to address any academic or personal challenges they may be encountering.
  • Scholars receive a $7,000 scholarship in both their junior and senior years.
  • Scholars will take part in a self-designed paid internship during the summer between their junior and senior years.
  • The full cohort will meet monthly with their mentors and Dr. Omari for support, learning and problem-solving.

According to Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D. in the Journal of Negro Education, if we are to raise the college graduation rates of African American men, we need to think innovatively. He advocates a number of strategies that include mentoring, internships, increased funding for Pell Grants and needs-based scholarships, and supporting black male initiatives in college. The Eddie Phillips Scholars Program does all of this and more. The three young men who have agreed to go down this unchartered path with us will teach us a lot about what works here in Minnesota, at least on a small scale, to support young black men in their collegiate journey. Stay tuned for reports and updates over the next two years.

Patrick Troska

Author Patrick Troska

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