Why Juneteenth’s Promise Must Include Higher Education Investment for Black Men

By Christian Collins

This Juneteenth, the annual reflection of this country’s historical mistreatment of Black Americans must consider the impact of white supremacy on higher education policy. Access to higher education and the accompanying socioeconomic advantages provided by postsecondary degree attainment have long been withheld from Black communities. Even when managing to access pathways to higher education, Black students have long experienced lower retention and graduation rates than other racial groups, and this disparity is especially evident for Black men.

Juneteenth’s truth telling offers a remedy for Black men’s falling enrollment rates caused by expansive and harmful institutional racism on Black Americans. Higher education is a known pathway to achieving socioeconomic equality, which is why federal policy that’s been rooted in racism has historically worked to deny Black men access to postsecondary education and associated benefits. The only way to bridge the current gaps between state goals and actual degree attainment achieved by Black men is by addressing the structural inequities that reduce the likelihood of Black male students accessing higher education.

The declining enrollment rates of Black men at undergraduate institutions have only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Between fall 2019 and 2021, Black men experienced a 14.8 percent enrollment drop, compared to a 10.2 percent drop across all males. At community colleges, Black men’s enrollment decreased 23.5 percent in the same period, second only to Native American men among men and women of all racial groups. These trends indicate that the same societal inequities that many hoped to be resolved on June 19, 1865, are still as pervasive and effective as ever in preventing Black men’s upward economic mobility. Experts point to many factors for why Black men either decide against or are prevented from pursuing higher education. These include reduced access to financial resources and support, disproportionately receiving punitive discipline in pre-college years, and having to navigate educational campuses openly hostile to their existence.

Policy Changes Can Reverse Declining Enrollment Rates for Black Men

Targeted financial supports that bridge the income and wealth gaps faced by Black men are crucial to reversing declining community college enrollment rates, including re-balancing the amount of public education funding meant for higher education. Since the late 1970s, the share of college-related costs paid by students and their families has increased from 33 percent to 46 percent in 2020. In fact, Black community college graduates represent the highest percentage of loan borrowers by race and borrow the highest average amount while completing their degrees. Congress must correct the ratio of public funding through the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) to match federal grants and financial aid with rising tuition and other educational costs.

Notable among provisions available for Congress to alleviate barriers to accessing postsecondary education are the collection of eight programs known as TRiO, which provide federal outreach and services for individuals from communities that have been historically disadvantaged. These programs were specifically formed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and have since served as critical lifelines to help Black men navigate the social, academic, and financial challenges of postsecondary education. Between 1965 and 2021, total national TRiO participation from all demographics of students has grown from 3,261 to 854,929, yet funding per participant for all TRiO programs has fallen between 1997 and 2021.

Tuition is only one of the barriers preventing Black men from accessing postsecondary opportunities, as many students also navigate food and housing insecurities they must manage while considering the monetary and time costs of community college. Nearly 70 percent of surveyed students attending predominantly Black two-year institutions experienced food insecurity within 30 days prior to being surveyed, in addition to housing insecurity or homelessness in the year prior. We can support increased enrollment among Black men by expanding the accessibility of federal benefits programs for students though eliminating unnecessary restrictions to program eligibility and providing guidance for students to know which programs they qualify for. Increasing funding for other discretionary grants like the U.S. Department of Education’s Basic Needs for Postsecondary Students Program is also paramount to maximizing the ability of community colleges to address basic needs insecurities for their students by preventing limitations of awards due to lack of funds.

Redressing Declining Black Male Enrollment Rates Requires a Meaningful Support System

Higher education is just one branch of the tree of systemic racism, but dedicated efforts to increase access to higher education pathways for Black men are key in helping them achieve the same social mobility that other demographics enjoy. These efforts must also be combined with increased supports for Black children, as structural barriers preventing Black men from enrolling in community college often begin in the K-12 system. While our nation has made substantial progress in providing the public good of a community college education to Black men, we need new policy solutions to protect these students from persistent systemic inequities that influence their enrollment rates.