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Closing the African American Achievement Gap in Higher Education

reviewed by Marybeth Gasman - December 03, 2007

coverTitle: Closing the African American Achievement Gap in Higher Education
Author(s): Alfred P. Rovai, Louis B. Gallien Jr., Helen R. Stiff-Williams (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747785, Pages: 212, Year: 2007
Search for book at Amazon.com

Recently I took my mother on a drive through West Philadelphia, the neighborhood that borders the University of Pennsylvania campus and my home.  My mother noticed that as we drove away from the Ivy League campus – five blocks, then ten blocks – the neighborhood had very few businesses (with the exception of fast food restaurants and liquor stores), boasted schools with bars on the windows, and had little green space for children to play.  My mother, who is 78 and lives in rural Tennessee, wondered how children in West Philadelphia could make it with so little support from society and the city.  Doesn’t anyone care that these children and their families are living in dire poverty?  The achievement gap that plagues African American children who grow up in such blighted neighborhoods often continues to hold them back – particularly when they struggle to gain access to the nation’s colleges and universities.  In their edited volume, Closing the African American Achievement Gap in Higher Education, Alfred P. Rovai, Louis B. Gallien Jr., and Helen R. Stiff-Williams explore this achievement gap (or as many are now calling it, opportunity gap) from a multitude of perspectives, including the influence of culture campus diversity, and transformative teaching strategies.

A book of this type, which tries to shape policy and practice, must be well-organized and easy to use.  The editors have done an admirable job in this regard.  They begin with an introduction that is more than a summary of the chapters in the book; instead, it contextualizes the “problem” of the achievement gap, providing both detailed statistics that demonstrate the wide reaching crisis, as well as a conceptual framework for understanding the subsequent chapters.  Most importantly, the editors remind the reader that African Americans and African American culture is not monolithic – a reminder that is essential when discussing the achievement gap.  They urge us to consider class and geography, for example, alongside race.  Each of the book’s ten chapters makes an important contribution; the two I’ll focus on here are particularly innovative and thought provoking.

Emery Petchauer contributed a fresh essay to the book entitled “African American and Hip-Hop Cultural Influence” in which he argues that “regardless of the materialistic, nihilistic, or misogynistic overtones of much of commercialized hip-hop music, educators on campuses must seek to understand the meanings that students derive from and ascribe to hip-hop in order to remain culturally relevant” (p. 34).  This is a strong statement and not one that Petchauer makes lightly.  He gives ample evidence that culture matters in our approaches to lessoning the achievement gap, pointing out that African American students who are part of the Hip-Hop generation tend to be “extrinsically motivated by professional and economic aspirations” and “operate under a construction of race” that is vastly different from previous generations of African Americans (p.34).  Although Petchauer’s point about these different attitudes is compelling, he doesn’t make specific recommendations about how such knowledge might be used to help solve the African American achievement gap; he merely asks policymakers and practitioners to “consider” the differences between the Hip-Hop generation and those African Americans who were more influenced by the Civil Rights Movement.  I wondered how the materialistic aspects of Hip-Hop culture, described by Petchauer, affect students’ performance in college?

Most definitely, efforts to increase achievement among African American students must begin in the classroom. Marshalita Peterson writes about this topic in “Challenges in the Traditional Classroom” – a chapter that I found particularly informative.  She argues that African American culture is a “high” cultural context that focuses on “information that surrounds an event, situation, or interaction in order to determine meaning from the context in which it occurs” (p.79).  Conversely, White culture, according to Peterson, is a “low” culture that “tends to filter out conditions surrounding an event or interaction to focus on words and objective facts” (p. 79).  Although I think these characterizations are somewhat simplistic, I do find Peterson’s suggestions to be helpful.  She notes that successful African American students develop coping strategies that include aspects of both low and high-culture; whereas, low-achieving African American students lack the resiliency to manage low-culture. According to Peterson, historically White institutions, in order to promote achievement among African American students, must place more of an emphasis on cultural context when transmitting knowledge.  As in the case of Petchauer’s article, it would have been helpful if Peterson provided examples of how students can be taught to develop coping strategies that include a balance of low and high-culture.  Here, drawing on work by Shaun Harper (2005) would have aided Peterson’s arguments.  Harper has conducted in-depth interviews with successful African American students and has identified key factors that have led to their success, including meaningful faculty relationships, a passion for learning, and high levels of engagement both inside and outside the classroom.  Although Harper’s work focuses on “high achieving” African American males, there is evidence that these same factors are crucial to the success of under-achieving African American students (Palmer & Gasman, 2008).

Overall, Closing the African American Achievement Gap in Higher Education provides ample information on the current state of achievement for African Americans, with most of the chapters considering the impact of culture and context (e.g., the book focuses on both the historically White and historically Black institutional contexts).  Some of the chapters also provide practical suggestions for changing classroom behavior, understanding various learning styles and assessing them, and evaluating institutional policies that impede student achievement; the book even provides a checklist for faculty to evaluate their ability to teach to African American students.  Of particular interest are the discussion topics at the end of each chapter, making this book very usable as a classroom text for courses focused on access and higher education and those interested in the connections between K-12 and higher education, as they pertain to the achievement gap.  Although some of the chapters are stronger than others in this edited volume, the conclusion provided by the editors at the end of the book is most helpful as it offers concrete ways for individuals and institutions to increase retention and academic achievement.


Harper, S. (March/April, 2005). Inside the experiences of high-achieving African American male students. About Campus, 8-15.

Palmer, R. & Gasman, M. (Jan/Feb, 2008).  ‘It Takes a Village to Raise a Child’: Social capital and academic success at historically Black colleges and universities, Journal of College Student Development, 49(1), 1-19.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 03, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14812, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:36:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Marybeth Gasman
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    Dr. GASMAN is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work explores issues pertaining to the history of philanthropy and historically black colleges, black leadership, contemporary fundraising issues at black colleges, and African-American giving. Dr. Gasman’s has published several books, including Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press). Dr. Gasman has also published many peer-reviewed articles in journals such as Teachers College Record, the Journal of Higher Education, the American Educational Research Journal, Educational Researcher, and the History of Education Quarterly.
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