Changing the Narrative for Men of Color in Higher Education

By  - 
Lisa McBride

Completing college is more of a struggle for African American and Latino men than for any other racial or ethnic group. The troubled status of these groups in higher education has garnered tremendous attention over the past 20 years at national conferences, in the media, and in published scholarship. As researchers increasingly highlight the complexities of the problem, educators, administrators, and policymakers alike have grappled with the question of what must be done to improve the success of black and Latino male students.

A 2015 report titled Building a Grad Nation, released by America’s Promise Alliance, indicates that the U.S. is on track to graduate a record number of high school students by 2020. However, as the nation’s overall graduation rate has continued to rise, the gap between black men and their white peers has widened, according to a new study released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. In fact, the report shows that in 2011-2012, the national graduation rate for black men was 59 percent, for Latinos 65 percent, and for whites 80 percent. Particularly striking were figures for Detroit, where only 23 percent of African American male students graduated from high school on time.

The often-quoted statement, “There are more black men in prison than in our colleges and universities,” has been used in many ways. According to Elwood Robinson, PhD, the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, “For nearly a decade, this has been a popular statement with those attempting to dramatize the plight of African American males. Although today it is factually inaccurate, there are far too many of these individuals in prison and not enough in college.”

As a consequence of these high rates, “the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline is often invoked as a metaphor to capture the seemingly inexorable progression of African American boys,” explained Oscar Barbarin, PhD, chair and professor in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, in his book Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men.

“African American men figure so prominently in the correctional system that the number of African American 4-year-old males can be used to model the number of people who will be incarcerated 15 to 20 years in the future,” Barbarin wrote.

Based on an analysis of data, he has projected that by 2029, prisons will house almost 20 percent of the African American 4-year-olds now living in America. To counter this issue, the Obama administration set a goal to reduce the incarcerated population and end the use of private prisons. Under the Trump administration, however, these efforts have been reversed and a dozen private prison contracts have been restored.

Prominent abolitionist, author, and orator Frederick Douglass said it best when he wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Today, more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, a strong argument can be made that school systems in the United States are separate and unequal. It is widely acknowledged that boys and men of color are significantly overrepresented in school disciplinary and juvenile justice systems compared with their representation in the overall population. Researchers have concluded that as a result of these and other barriers, “male students of color have the lowest school attendance rates and, perhaps most important, the lowest levels of personal stability and support, relative to other groups,” according to the 2016 report Boosting College Success Among Men of Color, published by MDRC — a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization.

The moment men of color are admitted to a college or university, their experience should look different from that of the majority of students, as we know they are resilient, remarkable, and capable of excelling when given the tools to do so.

MDRC’s report shows that although many young men of color have similar college and career aspirations as their white peers, “they face significant barriers to attaining their academic and personal goals,” according to the authors of the report. Such barriers exist in part due to the chronically low-performing schools that young African American and Latino male students attend, where a majority of students qualify as poor or low income. This situation serves as a barrier to improving the quality of education and the school achievement of boys and young men of color.

Even if these individuals are able to overcome the many obstacles they face in order to graduate from high school and enroll in college, they don’t always go on to earn degrees. In fact, African Americans enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs at four-year institutions graduate at the lowest rates of all other racial and ethnic groups, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Specifically, they lag 12.6 percent behind Hispanics and 22.3 percent behind whites; Asians have the highest graduation rate at 71.2 percent. The study looked at the six-year graduation rates of students in four cohorts. Across each group of undergraduates, the six-year graduation rate for black male students attending public colleges and universities was 35 percent, compared with 46 percent for Latino and 59 percent for white male students.

The achievement gap for men of color is the crisis of our time. According to scholar Gwendolyn Perry-Burney, PhD — a professor of social work at California University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on at-risk youth — federal, state, and district policies need to be examined to address these disparities in ways that will make a difference in the lives of black and Latino men.

Understanding what contributes to a college experience that motivates students to achieve academic and personal goals is important, especially for African American and Latino men — whose graduation rates are also lower than those of female students. Although some colleges and universities have enacted programs to address the needs of these male students, if we are going to make a difference in their ability to complete school and earn a college degree, we must continue to respond to their unique needs.

Successful work to support young men of color has involved the following strategies to increase their engagement, persistence, and college graduation rates:

● Academic enrichment and mentoring to enhance the broad range of academic skills necessary for them to be successful in college; skill development such as customized sessions on time management, textbook comprehension, note taking, studying, and test taking; mentoring that includes both peer-to-peer and adult-to-peer relationships that ensure support and provide advice and guidance

● Leadership training, with opportunities for students to learn specifically about Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or participate in Dale Carnegie’s Leadership Training, as well as community leadership projects with the National Urban League and 100 Black Men mentoring organizations

● Activities that promote dignity, respect, love, and trust, such as talking circles, expression through art and culture, community projects, exercise, nutrition classes, and opportunities for male bonding in a familiar, safe place

● Special events or workshops featuring guest speakers, special presentations, conferences, and meetings on topics related to identity and student success, as well as prominent men of color in a community forum to improve social and cultural awareness

● An automated contact system (i.e., email, Twitter, Facebook, or other social media outlets) to reach students and let them know the institution is monitoring their progress

● Civil engagement, such as volunteerism that includes character building and paying it forward

● Public speaking opportunities and interpersonal communication seminars to build communication skills

We must not forget that for many men of color, college life can be fraught with traumatic or stressful experiences. Perry-Burney reminds us that many of these individuals see themselves as the person who can change his family’s life cycle, who moves his family out of poverty, and who is respected by white people.

Yet many colleges and universities aren’t accommodating men of color. They lack African American and Latino male professors and mentors, mentorship programs, and specialized financial aid advisers and those concerned with the whole person. The moment men of color are admitted to a college or university, their experience should look different from that of the majority of students, as we know they are resilient, remarkable, and capable of excelling when given the tools to do so.●

Lisa McBride, PhD, is the vice president for diversity and inclusion at Salem State University. She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.