Nipsey Hussle Forces Us to Rethink Black Male Achievement in Higher Education

Nipsey Hussle was just like us. He represented redemption and a better version of ourselves, our sons, our brothers, our uncles, and our fathers. Nipsey was one of a few examples in the greater Black community of a self-educated man who carved his own path, transcending into a greater being and offering his knowledge and experience to his community and the hip hop world, selflessly.  

With no college experience, Nipsey was determined to see and incite change, be the change and by all accounts, was that change in his community. Yet his love for people and his community left him vulnerable to being shot dead by another black man in front of his own store in that same community he unconditionally loved and honored. 

For those of us who see ourselves and our efforts in him, Nipsey's death is an unfortunate reminder that regardless of what we do for our communities, society can only see Black men as gang members, drug dealers, prisoners or deceased. With fewer opportunities for access to the economic and academic advantages of white peers, black men are disproportionately more vulnerable to the whims of the economy and other barriers that impede achievement, leading to their underrepresentation in a variety of outcomes associated with living a good life.  

I’m not a rapper, nor am I a native of South Los Angeles, nor have I had quite the community impact that Nipsey had. But I can’t help but see myself, my HBCU colleagues, and the esteemed black men I have the pleasure of mentoring and guiding each day in my various roles throughout my higher education career in the same vein in which the world now sees Nipsey. 

Nipsey's humble beginnings and transcendent ideals for community improvement are a mirror image of the men on HBCU campuses across this country. His life and death continue to affirm the important work we do at our nation’s HBCUs, but also highlights the importance of improving and continuing to build upon our current efforts. 

The nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at an appallingly low rate of 42 percent. This figure is 20 percentage points below the 62 percent rate for white students. Racial stratification is present in everything from access to performance, graduation rates, debt and loan default for black men in higher education. 

Programming targeted towards black males has been the subject of conversation at our HBCUs for years, as we seek ways of increasing enrollment levels and graduation rates among the group. We have learned that to ensure their success, we must address gaps in academic preparation from under-resourced public high schools; ensure an affordable cost of attendance; promote mental wellness; provide safe on-campus environments; and offer vibrant, transformative college experiences. 

The results of these conversations led to the creation of Black Male Initiatives which focus on retention and persistence towards graduation to close the gender gap between men and women. Despite national efforts, this gap continues to widen, necessitating the turning of a critical eye to these programs and evaluating the following questions: 

  • 1) Has the Black Male Initiative been the answer? 
  • 2) Are there additional components necessary for Black male success in college not covered in previous Black Male Initiative models? 
  • 3) Is there something simpler than retention and persistence needed? Should our approach be more pragmatic? 

If these questions remain unexplored, the presence and impact of black men at HBCUs will continue to dwindle. Changing of the narrative surrounding our black males in higher education today, especially at HBCUs, is long overdue. Addressing this requires a sustained and collaborative effort aimed at empowering black males. 

The African American community faces countless problems, such as overrepresentation in prisons and underrepresentation in classrooms, police brutality, poverty, violence, mental health issues, and educational inequities.  We need more black men like Nipsey Hussle who are empowered to lead their communities in addressing the black community’s issues.  

The consequence of low African American student enrollment in college is decreased economic, political, social, and cultural capacity. HBCUs are considered a safe haven and a pathway out for black males who have checkered pasts. Through the HBCU experience, black males are prepared to become that example of making it out of the hood and gaining the opportunity to return to do something for their communities.

The Marathon Continues...

Dr. Emmanuel Lalande is the vice president for enrollment management at Benedict College. 

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