I read in a book that "as the next millennium begins, there are more young black men in prison than in college." Jury Nullification by Clay S Conrad (Kindle edition, Dec 2013 loc: 343). (First Published 1998)
Thinking "That's awful and really?" I first turned to google.
provides a statistical table for 2000-2010 indicating that there were more African Americans in college than in jail or prison in the year 2002 and thereafter. But in 2000 and 2001, there were more in jail or prison.
The same article notes that:
A Washington Post editorial published in June referenced a 2007 quote from then-Senator Barack Obama. In this quote, Obama stated that “we have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.”
National Public Radio (NPR, a non-profit broadcaster) has published a transcript of a radio program dated April 23, 2013:
But you've probably heard that there are more African-American men in jail than in college. Even then-candidate Barack Obama talked about this at an NAACP candidate forum, back in 2007.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.
Ivory Toldson is an associate professor at Howard University School of Education. He wrote about this for TheRoot.com, and he says...
IVORY TOLDSON: It's wrong. There are 1.4 million black men in college right now, and there are about 840,000 black men in prison.
An NBC News article from Sep 2007 suggests the results can vary depending on who is included in the college category:
More than three times as many black people live in prison cells as in college dorms, the government said in a report to be released Thursday. The ratio is only slightly better for Hispanics at 2.7 inmates for every Latino in college housing. Among non-Hispanic whites, more than twice as many live in college housing as in prison or jail. The numbers, driven by men, do not include college students who live off campus. Previously released census data show that black and Hispanic college students — commuters and those in dorms — far outnumber black and Hispanic prison inmates.
Obviously this topic is something of a political football. I would be open to editorial suggestions to further pin down the question.