Getting Black Males Through College

I have a big weakness for success stories of young folks facing tough odds who have triumphed with the support of a proactive community built around supporting them. It's a very specific narrative I'm drawn to, I admit. Today I got to indulge it big time with the Minority Male Student Success Database, a project of the American Association of Community Colleges. The AACC has gathered information about mentoring programs at community colleges that have been successful in raising black male graduation rates.

Here's one of them, from the San Jacinto College District's Men of Honor program in Houston, Texas:

Prior to the program we were losing 92 of every 100 African-American males enrolled each semester. In the Fall of 2009 71 African-American males joined the program. Seventy of the seventy-one are enrolled for Spring semester 2010. We believe mentoring played a significant role in the retention of these young men in the first semester of the program.

And the TRUMPET program at Northeastern Technical College in Cheraw, South Carolina has plenty to boast about:

TRUMPET has been great for Northeastern Technical College. Before its inception and launch the African American male retention rate was the lowest at a little over 50% in 2008. Our recent numbers indicate that the retention rate for this group has increased to 86%. This group rose from the lowest retained group to the highest retained group because of the services of this program.

But really, give me a personal testimonial any day, and I'm set, like these from Alamance Community College in Graham, North Carolina:

A student of the program now a university transfer student said: “It keeps you on the right track. It becomes a team effort with the other guys, helping each other out. Dr. Turner is always in my ear, helping me with financial aid information, making sure I go talk with my advisors. Dr. Turner has made the difference…”

A Criminal Justice Technology student noted: “Before I started with this program, I was losing focus. I wouldn’t put my whole heart into class. Dr. Turner helped me regain my focus. The program holds you to a higher standard. It creates camaraderie. One of the main things I’ve gotten from the program is knowing someone is concerned about my well-being.”

Many of these programs were started by faculty and staff who pulled together some grant money to provide black and Latino males academic support, peer counseling, and leadership development opportunities. Among the offerings in the AACC database is the popular Men of Merit program, which identifies incoming black students and nurtures them throughout school. Some go on field trips to elementary schools to read to students. They form support groups to talk about the unique stresses of being young black men in college.

In California community colleges, only 26 percent of black students and 22 percent of Latino students graduate, receive their certificates, or transfer after six years, compared with 35 percent of Asian and Pacfic Islanders and 37 percent of white students. And even though more than a third of U.S. college students fail to earn a college degree after six years, more than half of students of color don't graduate.

Black and Latino males' persistently low college graduation rates can seem like an intractable problem. The same could be said for education inequities at every stop along the higher education chain, where parfait-like racial stratification in everything from access to performance, graduation rates, debt and loan default, is not new news.

A pair of reports from Ed Trust last summer highlighted four-year colleges that had been able to successfully narrow or close their college graduation gaps with similar proactive approaches. Successful schools instituted early-notification programs so that counselors and peer mentors could intervene when a student was falling behind in classes. UNC-Charlotte even started a counseling program dedicated just to its black men undergrads.

Ed Trust highlighted Georgia State University, which was able to boost its black male graduation rate by paying attention to data: students struggled the most in their introductory classes, and then again between their second and third year in college when they transitioned from those courses to upper-division courses. When they started addressing students at those key periods, graduation rates across the board went up 5 percentage point, but students of color in particular benefited. GSU's graduation rate for students of color went up 12 percent.

The reports suggest that an explicit commitment to creating a supportive, academically rigorous culture that meets students where they are -- men of color in particular face a unique set of challenges to getting through college -- helps boost retention and graduation rates. Students of color are also disproportionately first-generation college students who often do not have the economic and academic advantages of their white peers and are more vulnerable to the whims of the economy and other barriers that impede academic achievement.

These numbers and stories suggest that closing the graduation gap need not be an elusive goal. There isn't even some great mystery to how to make sure men of color graduate from college. Colleges just have to want it enough.