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Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

Making the Grade

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Education has long been considered a gateway to success, providing a better future for African Americans. But statistics are showing that many Black students are simply not prepared to take advantage of what education has to offer and, post-pandemic, many college students are being forced to walk away from pursuing the college degree that they once were eager to attain.
African Americans are one of the fastest-growing minority segments in the country, at a rate more than double that of the non-Hispanic white population. It is imperative that we address the skills and education gaps that exist, to prepare our students to be a part of the country’s next generation of leaders.
High school graduation rates for Asian Americans (93%), whites (89%) and Hispanics (82%) continue to outpace African Americans, whose graduation rate is 80%. This is six points lower than the national average and 13 and 9 points lower than Asian Americans and whites, respectively.
In addition to lower graduation rates, African Americans are less prepared for college as well as careers. Students who meet benchmarks in the nationwide College and Career Readiness (CCR) exam, designed to assess cross-disciplinary literacy expectations in English, reading, math and science, are more likely to be prepared for college or able to succeed in workforce training programs. Results from the 2019 CCR showed that while 62% of Asian test-takers and 47% of whites met a minimum of three CCR benchmarks, only 11% of African Americans achieved at the same level.
Improved opportunities
Schools alone cannot be the sole source of education and inspiration that guide Black students to strive for achievement and a desire to succeed. Successful African Americans must not only be advocates for better education, we must continue to provide opportunities to enhance the learning experience for the next generation.
Too often, African American students view tutoring as a remedial course of action, while other communities view it as an advancement opportunity. We must help our students identify educational opportunities that will broaden their perspectives and excite them to the possibilities of knowledge beyond the school walls. We must introduce them to career opportunities they have never heard of, much less dared to dream about.
When we send our students to college they are oftentimes ill-prepared for success. We send our best and our brightest to compete with others that are equally, if not more, prepared to embrace the challenges of college life. College can be overwhelming even for the brightest students. Learning how to navigate college courses, independent living and, in some cases, employment can be daunting and can lead to discouragement and failure.
Against this background, colleges and universities across the county continue to struggle to retain and graduate African American students, especially first-generation students from low-income families. And the coronavirus pandemic has worsened this problem.
A recent report by the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, revealed how the pandemic altered the plans of many prospective college students, particularly Blacks and Latinos. Almost a third of Black and Latino students canceled their plans to continue their post-secondary education in the fall of 2020. The inability to pay was the primary reason for the educational disruptions. But there were other contributing factors as well. Students also indicated that the pandemic contributed to feelings of isolation, lack of motivation and lack of support.
What can we do?
Intentional support
Just as business professionals benefit from having mentors to guide their careers, our approach to improving the African American high school and college graduation rates must also center around mentoring
As a mentor, you are someone a student can depend on for emotional support and you can help create an expectation of success for them. Your guidance can also help a student to visualize opportunities that education can provide. Both formal and informal mentoring have been shown to improve academic performance as well as mental health and well-being among African American students.
Many colleges and universities, as a part of their curriculum, have introduced comprehensive orientation and retention programs for minority students. Combined with consistent and intentional support through mentorships, we can play a part in catapulting African American students to unprecedented success. For those of us who have successfully navigated the education system, it is time to pay it forward.
Our students need us more than ever before. Be the positive influence that will make a difference in a student’s success. Share information with them about internships and scholarships. In fact, use your social media platforms to share any information you have have about opportunities for financial aid, as well as national and international educational and career opportunities. We have long been taught that knowledge is power. This is still true. And now, more than ever before, educational achievement continues to be the best pathway to career success and long-term financial security.
Me, a Mentor?
Mentorship relationships can be built through networking, personal connections or formal mentorship programs. Many sororities, fraternities, churches and other professional organizations have scholarship programs for both high school and college students. These organizations often provide members an opportunity to connect with students, which can result in a mentorship. For some, these connections could be the difference between success and failure.
When students are partnered with business professionals, they will have access to them for both counsel and encouragement. While some mentorships involve a level of accountability with mentors engaged in tracking progress and helping the mentee stay focused and on track towards completing established goals, a mentorship can be as simple as connecting with a student a couple of times a year to check on their mental health and to provide information about scholarships, internships and career opportunities.
Zeline Kelly Bates: My WayMaker
I continue to be grateful for the 35-plus-year friendship and working relationship I have with Michelle Flowers Welch, the founder and CEO of Flowers Communications Group, with whom I have worked on many advertising and marketing projects. She began her PR company a few years before I started my media company and I have always admired her integrity and business acumen.
Michelle has always been one of my biggest supporters. She has openly shared business advice and has been a trusted confidante when needed. Whenever she had a media project, or knew of other companies that needed media planning and buying services, she was always eager to recommend my company. Her faith in me as well as her reliance on my services contributed greatly to my professional success.
Zeline Kelly Bates is founder and president of Media Dynamics, which specializes in strategic planning, media negotiations, execution, stewardship and training. She is also a part of the adjunct faculty staff at Columbia College of Chicago, teaching media planning and buying, as well as communication ethics.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of WayMaker Journal.