The Urban Myth of 50% Black Male Drop Out Rates

Myth:  50% of Black men drop out of high school

Fact:  12.1% of African-American males drop out of high school
Fact:  33.2% of college age black men attend higher education

Where did the myth of a 50% drop out rate
for young black men come from?

Why is there such a big difference in the numbers?

HoodwinkedBefore 2010, high school graduation rates were reported as whole, not separated by race.  If a school graduated 90% of its white kids and only 30% of the black kids, the school would report a 75% graduation rate.  Their abysmal record with African American students was hidden.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education studied the graduation rate numbers and found that only 50% of African-Americans were graduating with their cohorts.  They published this fact.

Various people, including celebrities, foundations, and people seeking money to work with black students began to quote the Schott Foundation report, saying there was a 50% drop-out rate among African-Americans.  Very quickly “everyone” knew that there was a crisis in drop out rates for black students, especially young men.

But, the Schott statistics did not say that 50% of African American men were dropping out.

The problem was in the way graduation rates are figured.   The “graduation rate” only tells us how many people who enter the 9th grade graduate from that same school with the same group of people, their cohort.

Drop out graphicNot graduating with your cohort doesn’t mean you drop out.  Some students change schools, some take an extra year to graduate, and some move with their families to another neighborhood or state.  That is why the Schott Foundation can say that 50% don’t graduate with their class and Janks Morton can say only 12.1% drop out.  Both are correct.

Why did the media and non-profit world rely on the 50% figure?  Why did it take two years to discover this rather simple error in the way the statistics were used?

1)   The 50% figure validates the media images we already have for African-American youth.

2)   Those who are trying to help African-American youth can get more foundation and government money if they talk about an extreme crisis.  They have an interest in using the most dramatic figures to paint a picture of the need for their services.

3)   U.S. culture values the sensational.

4)   Schools are required to report their graduation rate, not their drop out rate.

5)   Some believe that telling young people negative facts about their peers will motivate them to try harder.

As the film Hoodwinked makes clear, these cultural and economic dynamics caused enormous harm.   This urban myth cut into the expectations young African-American men and women had for themselves and their friends.  It caused them to look down on their peers, joining the larger society in harmful and false stereotyping.


Where Did Janks Morton, the filmmaker who made Hoodwinked,
Get His Statistics
on African-American male drop out rates?

From The Digest of Education Statistics:

High School Drop Out Rate among persons 16-24 years old between 1960 and 2009. (not in school, no high school diploma)  —
Among Black males, the drop out rate was 10.6%.
In 2010, it was 9.5%.

U.S. Department of Education Website:

In 2008 the drop out rate for Black men was 10.6%
In 2006 the drop out rate for Black men was 8.7%

John Jaffray who regularly attends our dialog groups decided to look at some of the other statistics for in the film for himself.  Janks Morton said more black men were in college than in jail.   Here’s what John found:

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has an ‘Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System’ (IPEDS).  I still haven’t learned how to navigate this system to find the statistics on the percentage of Black males between the ages of 18 and 24 who are in college.  I did find in the NCES web-site ‘Fast Facts’ section the statistic that 33.2% of Black males were enrolled in college in the Fall of 2009, with a ‘standard error’ of +/- 1.6%.  So that corresponds to what we heard in the film.

I found a quote from the Washington Post Fact Check Column in 2007, which gave the figures for Black men ages 18-24 in college vs. in prison or jails for the years 2005. The numbers were: college: 530,000; prison or jail: 193,00.I think the general thrust of the film is clearly true and justified – namely that there are several times more young Black men in college (including junior colleges, tech and vocational schools) than in prison or jails.

What was also pointed out by some of the articles I read, is that the ‘War on Drugs’ is responsible for a large fraction of the black male prison and jail population, because of the heavy sentencing for non-violent drug offenses.  Another factor is the disproportionate sentences meted out to black offenders.

By Adrienne Lauby

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