Black Fraternity Looks to Boost Graduation Rates

A recent report states fewer than half of African-American males earn high school diplomas within four years. A national black college fraternity is working to turn this alarming trend around, and commentator Lester Spence commends Omega Psi Phi for its efforts. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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ED GORDON, host:

Fewer than half of African-American boys earn high school diplomas within four years. That comes from a recent Scott Foundation report on the educational achievement of black males. A national black fraternity is working to turn this alarming trend around and commentator Lester Spence commends Omega Psi Phi for its efforts.

LESTER SPENCE:

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, approximately 60 percent of all black bachelor's degrees are held by women, and around 66 percent of all black master's degrees are held by women. Black women also hold a slim majority of all professional degrees. This growth is a testimony of the extent to which black women have been able to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by the civil rights and the women's movements. But the relative dearth of black male college graduates is a significant problem. In my own classes, I have seen this gap firsthand. A couple of years ago, I remember teaching a senior seminar for black history majors. Of the 17 people in the classroom, I was the only male.

In Florida, a couple of state legislators, spurred by town meetings held by Omega Psi Phi fraternity, have stepped into the gap to propose legislation that would deal specifically with black male educational achievement. They propose a bill that would encourage high-performing black male students to take advanced placement courses in high schools and that would also create alternative teacher certification programs for black men in community colleges.

This bill does not begin to deal with the types of structural hurdles that influence black educational outcomes, much less those of black men. Despite all the bluster about acting white, blacks still attend schools with significant resource deficits in human and physical capital. The suggestion of advanced placement courses won't work if advanced placement courses aren't even offered at the types of schools blacks attend.

But impressive is the involvement of Omega Psi Phi fraternity in the drive to create the legislation in the first place. While a large number of black legislators at the local, state and federal levels are members of one of the five major black fraternities and their combined membership numbers around 500,000, rarely have they organized explicitly around legislation. States with large black populations tend to have large fraternity and sorority chapters. Imagine if, in the state of Michigan, for example, 10,000 Alphas, Kappas, Sigmas, Iotas and Omegas marched up to the state capital to lobby their legislators to increase educational funding in urban and rural communities.

Finally, it is refreshing to see state legislators actually attempt to use government to solve our problems. Too often, we talk hard-core. We don't need the man to solve our problems for us. We need to take responsibility for our own issues. That and a dollar won't even get you on the subway. Every other recognizable constituency in the United States, from loggers to evangelical Christians to pencil-makers look to the government for aid. We should be doing the same. To the degree that we pay taxes and are not asking the government to give us services based on the taxes we pay, we're getting played.

In many of my commentaries, I've talked about group initiative, group cooperation and group loyalty. These are values that I learned becoming an Omega. It's high time we used those values to move local, state and federal policy. Working directly on legislative issues impacting black men constitutes an important start. We should do more.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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