This week, we celebrate 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Since that time, we certainly have overcome many hurdles in our effort to achieve equality, but gaps remain, particularly when it comes to education. The opportunity gap for young men of color is one of the biggest crises of our time.
Only 5.4 percent of students enrolled at two- and four-year colleges and universities in Texas in the fall of 2012 were African American males; 4.1 percent were Hispanic males. If we are to increase the number of African American and Latino males entering college, we must increase high school graduation rates first. It is up to all of us to make sure that happens, because raising graduation rates and improving educational attainment must begin on a local level in elementary and secondary schools. As the vice president of diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin, I can assure we are willing leaders in this effort.
At UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, we fund initiatives that address the unique problem of young men of color to the tune of $750,000 annually. Like the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative recently launched by the White House, our commitment involves academic initiatives and partnerships with community and philanthropic organizations in order to reach out to young men beyond our university. In doing so, we are able to engage men of color across the entire educational spectrum, from pre-K through graduate school.
Two programs key to our work are Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) and the African American Male Research Initiative. Project MALES conducts research about male educational experiences and includes a mentoring program for male students of color across Texas. The program has spawned the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, which includes six community college districts, five universities and three school districts in the state (Austin, La Joya and El Paso ISDs) committed to enhancing Latino and African American male student success.
The faculty-led African American Male Research Initiative (AAMRI) is designed to increase the four-year graduation rate for African American males. AAMRI faculty members and staffers also mentor young black men through graduate school and research the best practices for them to achieve excellence. Mentoring is essential to these programs to ensure young men graduate from high school and college.
Mentoring initiatives, with the opportunity for young men to develop relationships with professionals and men of color already in college, will help break the school-to-prison cycle and keep young men on the path toward high school graduation. At its most basic level, the school-to-prison cycle removes students from classrooms and sets them on a path leading into the criminal justice system. The African American Youth Harvest Foundation, which started as one of our community incubator projects, heavily supports in-school suspension programs in order to break that cycle. Youth Court, a program through another one of our partners The University of Texas Law School has been successful in turning around students at risk of being suspended. Law students and staff members from the William Wayne Justice Center for Public Interest Law run the program, training the middle school students to serve in a number of roles.
In order to circumvent the school-to-prison pipeline, the students at the greatest risk need the opportunity to see themselves as something other than troublemakers or bad kids; they need to see themselves in mentors who have successfully navigated the education system and who are on a path of excellence. The African American Youth Harvest Foundation and Youth Court provide students the opportunity to transcend those negative labels, as do mentoring programs such as Communities in Schools’ X-Y Zone and our cascade mentoring programs through Project MALES and AAMRI.
As the Texas population becomes more diverse, we cannot continue to waste the incredible talent of millions of young Texans by allowing them to remain academically unsuccessful and on a path to poverty, prison or both.
Gregory J. Vincent is vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram , Austin American Statesman and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.