Black College Freshmen Are Smart, but Here Are Five Reasons Why They Are Not Thriving

As a general education professor for fifteen years and counting, I have no hard numbers if that is what you are searching for. But I do know from experience that Black college freshmen are as intelligent as any other group, and they leave school for five simple reasons that can be corrected in a few lectures or with an adjustment to onboarding strategies.

I have been a general education professor for five years. And way back in the BCE (before the cell phone era) days, I was a college freshman. I was young, very attractive (okay, that has nothing to do with this article, but I am feeling myself this morning, so I thought I’d throw that in there for good measure), intelligent, and scared to death! I tried to feign confidence, but those seminar classes, being away from home, and the immense size of the campus terrified me. Once the semester started rolling, I became accustomed to the campus and met friends. However, one thing dogged my academic life for the next two college years: I was bright, but like thousands of other Black college freshmen, I had been underexposed to college-level material, tested to death in a pubic high school, and was left with absolutely no study skills! I earned hard “C”s in college math and science classes that, had I but a modicum of metacognitive training, I would have performed better in. Then, one day, an abnormal psychology professor walked into the classroom, told us in a loud and coffee-filled voice, “Throw away those damn hi-liters” and proceeded to teach us how to study. By then, I was a junior in college and had already taken and barely passed some of my hardest classes. I never stopped thinking that if I had this knowledge for my freshmen year, I would have done better!

Each year, I read these articles about Historically Black Colleges and Universities being “revolving doors” for students. The retention rates are dismal, the attrition rates are even worse, and since so many of their students depend on federal financial aid, the funding levels are dire. At the predominantly white institutions, I read horror tales of how Black freshmen felt judged, how they reached out to their white professors or Teaching Assistants for help and are ignored, or how they just could not make the adjustment to that “cold” environment and leave. They either transfer to a community college or an HBCU or never return to school again. Each year, people wonder what to do about Black college freshmen. And each year, I shake my head, because no one actually asks the general education professors who teach Black college freshmen what to do about Black college freshmen. I am starting to think that no one really wants to know. The people who crunch the numbers and write the articles must want something to complain about incessantly.

Sometimes, the articles are optimistic. Like this one:

Yet, there are five very simple reasons why Black college freshmen do not make the adjustment to college — where ever they may be. Simple adjustments to curriculum and onboarding strategies may help prevent some of the students’ frustration and improve retention rates of Black students across the board.

  1. ) Black college freshmen are terrified and do not know what to expect from college, many times. Imagine that you live in Chicago. All of your life, you have watched Mississippi Burning on television, you have heard terror stories about people being hung in Mississippi, and you have heard grown folk laugh at other folk who visit the city and they were obviously “country” and fresh from Mississippi. Then, when your senior year comes, your mother announces that she is packing your things and sending you to a land-grant college in Mississippi. I cannot speak for anybody in Chicago, but if I were in that situation, I would be terrified geographically. Why on earth would parents spend a lifetime teaching their children about the racism, “backwardness” and stupidity of the South, then send them to college in the South? Even if the parents made the decision that a Southern college is equivalent to a Northern high school and it would be easier to get a degree here, do they think about what this does to the child emotionally? Yet, every year, as a faculty member in Southern institutions, we see our share of Northern Black students who come here and are beat-down by the Southern summer (after they have spent lifetimes laughing at how we’re unprepared for snow), they are made miserable by our mosquitos, and they are taken aback by how much work and technology our schools demand.

1a. Even if our students never leave the state, many of them have not been taught what to expect from the college classroom. And this is a shame, because our communities are full of teachers, nurses, and social workers who could take a little time and tell our students what to expect. But then again, many of our communities are filled with narcissists who are self-serving and are only concerned with lining their own pockets. That’s an entirely new post and a new sermon for me. As it is Sunday and I may feel my help coming on, Reader, don’t even get me started. Why is it that people in our communities are not doing a better job of telling our students that attending college is more than passing the ACT and filling out the application? I have tried. In 2012, I tried to open a whole business to do it. As I am a nobody in these parts, I’m Black, and people have been tested to death and believe in the gospel of tests, I didn’t get a single client.

2.) Which brings me to my second point… Many of our students come from districts where they have been tested to death. More than anything else, most early college classes require rigorous note-taking, modest reading comprehension, and excellent note-taking skills. If students come to college from a district, even an “A-rated” district where the emphasis was on testing and passing tests rather than learning, they are already at a deficit. Students simply may not know how to read a biology book effectively. Because they have been taught to read or “skim” for information rather than to teach themselves, reading in college as part of a study plan can be an arduous process for college freshmen. I personally teach students to stop skipping over words they do not know, download a dictionary app on their cell phones, and write notes down in the margins of their textbooks. If they plan to sell the book back to the bookstore, they can write notes down somewhere else. They may not know how to annotate a text. And with many public school districts not teaching cursive writing any more, they may not be keeping up with the overhead as professors are typing! I have had this happen to me several times. I became so frustrated with my students, that I asked, “What are you all doing? Are you printing or something?” The answer was a loud and resounding, “Yes.” I felt a migraine coming on, so I remember leaning on the podium, closing my eyes, taking off my glasses, and just taking a minute. Then I asked, “Well, why aren’t you all writing in cursive.” This one brave young woman, and I’ll never forget, said very timidly, “I don’t know how.” I asked, “Didn’t you learn in school?” This brave young man said in stentorian voice, “Mane, Dr. Jay. Where you been? They been stop teaching that. They say everybody use computers and text now, so we didn’t never learn cursive.” At that point, I just dismissed the class. When I came back to class, I was prepared. I told the students that when they go to purchase a home, they would have to sign their names. When they swipe a credit card, they would have to sign their names. I listed 10 situations where a cursive signature is required. It was only then that they realized what a disservice their public schools have done them.

Since our students have been tested to death, they have a narrow view of what subjects are important/unimportant and there are huge gaps in their knowledge. For example, many students arrive at college thinking that the Humanities are just not important. Many high schools fail to teach history and social studies with any kind of rigor since I am guessing these are not heavily tested subjects? For example, Black college freshmen come to college thinking that English is not important. They do not realize that if they do not pass those first composition courses, they cannot obtain a degree. And in those composition readers are Pulitzer Prize-winning authors who make many, many historical references with no footnotes. Sometimes, the faculty think students have a reading comprehension problem, when they have a missing history problem. And since our students have to be told how to use their technology effectively, they do not stop and look up the historical references! It’s maddening, I know. Trust me, there are times when I want to run away from freshmen and never teach college again, but at the end of the day, we have to understand this: it’s not their fault. They have been trapped in an unending cycle of funding-testing-funding-testing. I am not sure who thought all of this testing was a good idea, or who is even regulating the Educational Testing Service (I would love to know how many billions of dollars they make), but this cycle is making my job as a general educational professor more difficult as the years go on. And I am not alone. Everyone who teaches general education is feeling the pressure. I once heard one of my math colleagues crying. I mean she was C-R-Y-I-N-G. Her college freshmen did not know their timetables, because the “A-rated” school district allowed them to use those TI-85 calculators for test-taking purposes. Nobody told these children that there are no sane college algebra professors on the planet who will allow you to use those things in his/her class. You had better have your multiplication facts memorized.

3.) Black college freshmen have been mercilessly monetized. Black college freshmen, for most of their academic careers, have been so many butts in seats, so many dollars for districts, and so many checks via direct deposits. Very few people, even administrators and teachers who look like them, have been empathetic enough to even see them. Coming to college and meeting the wacky professor (that would be me) who learns their name, learns their writerly voice, learns a little of their temperament, and actually cares about who they are and who they want to be is the first time in their lives, for many of them, that they have had their humanities — and not their earning potentials — affirmed. I’m not going to say much behind that. It’s Sunday. Let that word sink in.

4.) Black college freshmen need classes on financial literacy and time management. Speaking from the faculty side, I can see that onboarding for many colleges that serve first-generation students is a problem. Since these students are scared, underexposed to rigorous critical thinking work, they have been mercilessly monetized, and do not know what to expect of college, they have a hard time realizing just how much work college work is. They still have strong ties to their families and some of them try to take five college classes and work a full-time job in order to send money home. Some college freshmen, when they receive a financial aid refund, do not know what this money is intended for, and spend the money on silly things. Or, I have known some college freshmen to send their entire refund check home and go without necessities like textbooks or even sanitary napkins. This can be remedied with a simple academic success class. I am not talking about two weeks of orientation. I am talking about an entire class with PRACTICAL ADVICE. For example, most college freshmen do not know that for every one hour of class they spend in front of a teacher, they will need two hours of class preparation. So, if a class meets for roughly one hour, three times per week, the student should prepare to spend about nine hours on that class total. If a student has five classes, he/she will spend about 40–45 hours a week doing class stuff. If a student has a job, that job should only be about 20 hours/week, or a part-time job. Sadly, many of our students have to be taught that things like textbooks and computers are expensive. You cannot “show off” when you are in college. College is a time for you to learn that what goes into your head costs just as much as what you wear on your feet or wrist. For students who have not been taught about delayed gratification, who have been taught that money is best spent on things that we can see, this is a difficult concept. Every year, I give my share of “F” grades, because students chose not to purchase the textbook. And I cut my teaching teeth at a community college. My whole class is structured around Open Educational Resources for the first six weeks, just in case financial aid has not been processed for students. I even provide the students with the ISBN so that they can purchase the book on Amazon rather than the campus bookstore. However, for some students, a pair of Jordans is more important than a book for my class, so he/she has to live with the consequences of that choice. Since many of our students have simply been passed along in the public system, receiving an “F” in college for a poor decision may be the first time they have been held accountable for their academic performance/underperformance. For other students, they are so grateful for that six-week textbook gap! That allows them to forego some student loans and pay for something out of pocket.

5.) Black college freshmen are intelligent but do not know how to study. I was a college freshman. I didn’t know how to study. I had never heard of the word, “metacognition.” I thought that if I started reading my notes two weeks before the test, I would be okay. I didn’t realize that my method was cramming, I was not learning anything, and was baffled at the Ds and Cs that I was getting on every test. For some reason, it did not dawn on me to actually read my biology book before class. I never thought to work out my chemistry textbook examples before class. I hated math, so working those examples were out of the question. Then, one day in psychology class, that all changed for me. Our professor walked in, told us that his class was one of the hardest classes on campus, and that we were all going to get As and Bs. If we would just trust him and throw away those blasted hi-liters, we would be better students. You know, Reader, I listened to this man (who was obviously a free love enthusiast in his former life), and that first week of his class changed my academic life. As often as I can, I try to pass on his advice to Black college freshmen. Some listen. Some do not. For those who do listen, they have gone on to graduate/law school, even when they thought that obtain a Bachelor’s was impossible for them. Someone, a very liberal white man in a ponytail, did it for me, and I am trying to pay it forward.

This morning, I would have liked for this post to read a little differently. I would have liked to have written that I went to an all-Black k-12 district where my humanity was affirmed every day by loving, nurturing teachers who looked like me. I would have liked to have written that at the all-Black, k-12 district, I was not just tolerated, I was celebrated. But that’s not my story. Coming from an all-Black k-12 district that depended on state funding and was run by the “Me-Generation,” what I heard every day was, “I got mine, you got yours to get.” Their paychecks and positions were secure, so what did most of them care about teaching and advising me? Now, don’t get me wrong, not all of my teachers were self-serving narcissists, but too many of them were. And like thousands of other Black college freshmen across the nation, I arrived at college underexposed, scared to the point where I remember my heart fluttering, with no study skills, but full of optimism. It didn’t take a month for me to realize how my public school district had underserved me. This is the situation that many college freshmen find themselves in, and rather than complain about it, we have the opportunity to do something about it. There is no need for us to continue to lose Black college students. They are just as intelligent as any other group. All it takes is a little adjustment on our part and some openness on the students’ parts and we can see those numbers turn around.

Well, this was a rather long post. This is directly from my professor’s diary.

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. She specializes in literature of the African Diaspora & cultural criticism. And her class never ends! Welcome.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store