African American Women Outnumber Their Male Counterparts in College

Kamala Appel, college admissions coach and author of "Keys to the C.A.S.T.L.E., College Admissions Secrets & Tips to Look Exceptional"

Mea Boykins just graduated from Spelman College in Atlanta this May. A psychology major, Ms. Boykins will be attending the London Metropolitan University in the fall where she plans to get her Masters’ degree in child, adolescent, and family mental health. Ms. Boykins doesn’t realize it, but she is NOT the exception, she is the rule when it comes to African American college students. Why? Because two-thirds of ALL African American undergraduate students are women. Yes, you heard that right. Right now African American college women outnumber their male counterparts two to one.


And these ambitious women are taking the lead in majors such as engineering and business, plus they’re using their educations to become successful entrepreneurs, starting businesses that then go on to employ lots of people. In a June 2006 study the National Women’s Council reported that there were nearly half a million U.S. businesses owned by African American women, employing nearly 254,000 people, generating $19.5 billion dollars in sales. And that was BEFORE the economic meltdown. By 2009 this same demographic had generated $29 billion in sales nationwide.

So what’s the deal? Why are African American women as a group suddenly taking charge of their educations and careers?

History Has Caught Up With Us

“Actually, I don’t think it’s sudden at all,” says Kamala Appel, college admissions coach and author of the book Keys to the CASTLE, College Admissions Secrets & Tips to Look Exceptional. Ms. Appel attended Yale as an undergraduate and USC as a grad student, and feels that the current college trend for African American women has been a long time coming.

“Many of today’s young African American women come from single-parent homes, I did,” says Ms. Appel. “I saw firsthand how hard it is to raise a family on your own. Fortunately, my mom was well-educated or we would have ended up very bad off when my dad left. I learned very early in life how important my own education would be to my survival.

The first in her family to graduate from an Ivy League school, Ms. Appel was also among the first to implement a recruitment program at Yale for both junior high and high school students. Her experience led her to start a coaching program to get all deserving kids into college. “Due to the poor economy young people need to find ways to be financially independent, because a corporation isn’t necessarily going to take care of them for the next 40 years.” Education is the key and fortunately there are now more people like Ms. Appel to make sure good kids don’t fall through the cracks.

Gender vs. Race

While some believe that being African American AND a woman add up to two strikes in terms of discrimination, Dr. Katherine Phillips, professor of organizational Behavior at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has shown through her research that African American women actually fair quite well in business because “Black women are viewed as independent, competent, and demanding of respect—all classic leadership traits,” and (more importantly) they are in a very unique societal position.

“African American women may not be seen as prototypical blacks, and they may not be seen as prototypical women,” says Dr. Phillips in a talk she gave at Stanford entitled Black Women and the Backlash Effect—Understanding the Intersection of Race and Gender. “That invisibility might end up being something that’s helpful in allowing [them] to take on behaviors that otherwise would not be allowed.”

Mea Boykins proves Dr. Phillip’s point. Ms. Boykins started the Student Emergency Assistance (SEA) at Spelman, a financial assistance scholarship for juniors and seniors with a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

“Almost everyone comes to Spelman in financial need. When I noticed some of my friends leaving in our sophomore year due to lack of funds I felt I had to do something.”

She drafted a letter to her family, friends, former employers, teachers, anyone she could think of to help her start the SEA. Ms. Boykins’ own father donated $3,000 the first year, which meant a senior who had one semester left could complete her degree. This year Ms. Boykins raised $5,000 for the SEA fund, which allowed her to award $2,500 each to a Spelman junior and senior, both of whom would have had to otherwise drop out. Ms. Boykins definitely demonstrates the “classic leadership traits” that Dr. Katherine Phillips has identified in her research.

Role Models Make a Difference

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why so many African American women have recently decided to attend college.

I think it’s because there is a large number of successful and independent role models now,” offers Kamala Appel. “Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, for example, show that success for African American women is very possible at the highest levels.”

Mea Boykins agrees. “In high school I had no idea about college. But then I saw the movie ATL in which the main character went to Spelman and I was motivated to visit the school. After visiting and seeing beautiful, smiling, happy, successful, and welcoming African American young ladies I applied because I felt that was the place where I belonged.”

So what’s the definitive answer as to why so many young African American women are pursing higher education now? Dr. Phillips sums it up best: “The complexity of how race and gender interact is not as simple as we typically thought.” As with anything complex, the answer leads to more questions. However, one thing is certain; today’s ambitious young African American women are well on their way to becoming tomorrow’s positive role models.

To give to the Student Emergency Assistance scholarship fund complete Spelman’s Online Gift Form. Specify “S.E.A. Scholarship” in the ‘other’ category or mail a check (payable to Spelman College) to Spelman College, 350 Spelman Lane, SW, Box 1303, Atlanta, Ga 30314-4399. Specify that it’s for the S.E.A. Scholarship fund.

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