Targeting Blacks, Latinos for College Success: No Man Left Behind

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by Clarence V. Reynolds

This winter, Jacobbie Watts, a young man from Lexington, Ky., enrolled at the College of New Rochelle School of New Resources to study business and education. “I want to get a ‘good’ job,” he said enthusiastically. “I have worked since graduation from high school, but only in low-paying jobs where I could not see a future beyond the position that I was in. Getting a college education means better living, success, higher self-esteem and probably relieves a little stress.”

Watts joins the ranks of hundreds of Black and Latino men who enrolled in college this term. Many are aware there will be challenges, but many of those who find those challenges daunting will also find supportive programs to help them reach their goals.

It is well documented that African-American and Hispanic/Latino males are underrepresented by crisis proportions on college campuses, but many determined efforts are being made to tackle the problems and reverse the trends.

“To address the problem, there are more and more culturally sensitive initiatives being established and institutionalized as a means of targeting issues germane to this population,” said Dr. Tyrone Bledsoe, founder and chief executive officer of the Student African American Brotherhood in Toledo, Ohio.

Launched in 1990, SAAB is one of the many organizations that aims to increase the number of African-American and Latino males who graduate from college by offering programs to provide financial need, personal development, mentoring, tutoring and behavioral help.

In 2010, the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center issued a report that showed that in 2008, 44.5 percent of African-American males between 15–24 were enrolled in a two-year or a four-year college or a vocational school. The figure for African-American females in that age bracket was 55.5 percent, according to “The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color: A Review of Research, Pathways and Progress.”

Among Hispanic males, the proportion was 45.7 percent, 54.3 percent for Hispanic females. For Asian males, the number was 46 percent; for females, it was 53.9 percent. That 2008 number for Native American males was 51.2 percent and 48.8 percent for females. In 2008, White males had a college enrollment figure of 48 percent, compared with 52 percent for women.

A 2010 report conducted by the American Council of Education, for example, said, “When determining graduation probabilities over a six-year period, Black males were found to have a graduation rate of 35 percent. This compares with rates of 59 percent for White males, 46 percent for Hispanic males, and 45 percent for Black women.”

Last year, a study by the College Board found that “16 percent of Latino and 28 percent of African-American men between 25 to 34 had obtained an associate degree or higher as of 2008, while the comparable figure for White men was 44 percent and for Asian men, 70 percent.” Another College Board statistic is that as of 2009, 9.8 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded to African-Americans and 8.3 to Hispanics.

African-American and Hispanic women outpace their male counterparts in higher education; the National Center for Education Statistics reports that for the 2008–2009 academic year, Black females earned 66 percent of all degrees awarded to African-Americans. Among Hispanics earning bachelor’s degrees, females received 61 percent of the degrees awarded. Among White graduates earning bachelor’s degrees, women took home 56 percent.

A Man-to-Man Approach

As our society becomes increasingly focused on global issues, many people recognize that college credentials are imperative in order for college-age men and women to become productive members in their families and communities and more competitive workers and leaders in the workforce. Programs such as the SAAB — with its focus on academics, self-esteem, pride, education and social responsibility — are making headway toward meeting this need. SAAB, which houses its national headquarters at the University of Toledo, strives to boost the number of African-American and Latino males who graduate from college by creating a positive peer community at institutions ranging from middle school through college.

The peer community involves student-to-student, or peer-to-peer, mentoring, one of the three prongs of the SAAB program, which also includes student-to-young-student (college to high school or middle school transaction) and adviser-to-student mentoring.

“It is often much easier for them [students] to relate to the daily challenges in each other’s lives than for professional mentors of a different generation,” Bledsoe said.

Peers are also able to increase “the accountability of participants to each other, as well as the goals of their respective SAAB chapter,” he said.

Each SAAB chapter is headed by an adviser, who is either a faculty or staff member and whose goal is to provide encouragement and a sense of inclusion to members. At weekly meetings, SAAB members engage in a variety of activities. One week, the members may work to orient new students to campus life, another they may focus on tutoring or study lessons, and another they may have seminars on résumé writing, managing money, creating business plans or increasing financial literacy. SAAB also offers community service initiatives, religious and spiritual activities, or social events to help the young men bond.

Since it was established, SAAB has grown to more than 250 chapters on campuses and celebrated several successes, Bledsoe said. For example, a SAAB chapter was established at the University of Louisville in 2005. That year, the six-year graduation rate for undergraduates at the university was 36.8 percent; for African-American males, the rate was 27.4 percent. In 2007, the six-year graduation rate for undergraduate students was 43.7 percent; for African-American male students the rate was 29.9 percent. In 2009, the overall graduation rate at the school rose to 48.4 percent; for African-American males, the rate was 36.6 percent.

According to SAAB, every Louisville student who has joined SAAB since it arrived on the campus has either graduated or remains in school.

“I think that structured and sustainable interventions have to be put in place to address the challenges impacting our college-age males of color,” said Bledsoe. “Programs that provide opportunities for connection, consistency and commitment to our young men should strongly be considered by educators across the educational spectrum to include K-12 and higher education.”

Much of SAAB’s approach to working with males of color is guided by a famous quote by Booker T. Washington, “Educate the Black man, mentally and industrially, and there will be no doubt of his prosperity.”

Higher Graduation Rates

Another example comes from University System of Georgia’s African-American Male Initiative. Launched in 2002 by the Board of Regents within the state of Georgia, AAMI programs have seen some dramatic increases in their enrollment, retention and graduation rates across the system.

According to USG’s 2011 brochure “African-American Male Initiative: Laser-Focused on Black Males’ College Graduation,” the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred annually upon African-American males at USG institutions has jumped to 49.77 percent, from 1,294 Black male students awarded bachelor’s degrees in fiscal year 2003, to 1,938 students awarded degrees in fiscal year 2010.

The Lantern, Ohio State University’s campus newspaper, recently announced the university’s enrollment report for autumn 2011, showing that retention rates and graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students at OSU’s Columbus campus have exceeded national levels: The overall first-year retention rate for the college was 93 percent. First-year retention rates for African-American students were up — to 91.1 percent from 88.3 percent; the rate for Hispanic-American students was also up — to 93.1 percent from 92.1 percent. In terms of the gender breakdown: first-year retention rate for African-American males was 89.8 percent, for Black females the rate was 92 percent; for Hispanic males 91.1 percent, and for Hispanic females, the rate was 94.7 percent.

The Multicultural Center and the Todd A. Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male were two of the resources provided by the university that helped to boost those numbers, university officials said. Founded in 2006, the resource center works to increase retention and graduation rates at OSU by offering one-on-one mentoring, group meetings and workshops on personal, professional and leadership development, according to Todd Suddeth, program director.

“The center has early engagement with incoming freshman students to become part of their programs or participate in other academic student support programs,” said Suddeth.

Some other organizations continue to provide support after the young men graduate. For nearly 42 years, INROADS Inc., a professional nonprofit organization based in St. Louis, Mo., has been working with African-American and Hispanic males in various regions across the country.

“When compared to national averages, African-American and Hispanic men who participate in the INROADS process graduate at higher percentages and are more likely to graduate within five years of college enrollment,” said Forest T. Harper Jr., president and CEO of INROADS. “The INROADS process directly impacts the number of African-American and Hispanic men that graduate from college by creating an accountable, like-minded peer and alumni community.

With a triad of support, INROADS interns are coached advised and mentored to excel academically, socially, culturally, professionally and in the community,” said Harper.

Changing the Institution

While it is important for students to take full advantage of the programs and opportunities before them, program directors said, it is essential to make changes from within the education system if institutions want to see better outcomes for Black and Latino males.

“If we as educators and practitioners are going to be successful in our efforts, we must exhaust efforts to counter and transform environmental and cultural forces that undermine the value of a good education,” said Bledsoe of the SAAB program.

Even Morehouse College, a historically Black, all-male college that has a long tradition of educating Black men, is re-examining how it carries out that mission. Bryant Marks, associate professor and director of the Morehouse Male Initiative at Morehouse College, said the program was created in 2007 because “we wanted to have a formal and scientific understanding of what we do.”

“We wanted to take a holistic approach to education,” Marks added. “We wanted to focus not just on teaching a subject but developing the whole man.”

Marks said that MMI at Morehouse integrates leadership and character building, as well as community service in its program. “Those things are not in textbooks, but in the messaging we give, from the president to the faculty to resident assistants,” Marks said.

“We don’t single out students, and the program targets everyone,” he added. “We structure the program around the responsibilities for educated Black males to use their skills and abilities to improve conditions of the Black community as a whole.

“The Morehouse Male Initiative uses research based on studies and focus groups to identify factors such as academic development, retention and graduation rates, and GPA that facilitate and foster the academic, personal, leadership development of Black males in college,” added Marks.

Behind at the Starting Line

Educators, researchers and policymakers have noted in study after study that the gap between Black and Latino males and other groups exists even before they start school, citing several circumstances such as economic disparities and unequal opportunities. Many of the obstacles Black and Latino males confront during their high school years, such as socioeconomic challenges, limited or no parental involvement, institutional and classroom dynamics, and culturally insensitive interventions, are still present as they enter college.

Dr. Boyce Watkins, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University and author of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About College: A Guide for Minority Students, (Blue Boy Publishing, 2004), said the factors hampering achievement for Black and Latino males are complex.

“There’s a significant lack of preparation from inner-city schools,” he said. “They are absolutely atrocious. Second, Black men themselves do not have a culture that encourages academic achievement as opposed to achievements in other areas, such as athletics. Third, most college campuses don’t have a faculty that is diverse, and with that, Black and Brown males don’t have role models for success. Without that, they lack support for these kids to graduate.”

He said campuses need to have real conversations about what diversity means, and the administrators and faculty really need to develop and implement action plans. “While colleges and universities are more concerned with diversity on the campus, the definition of diversity has to change,” he said.

Donald Smith, former chair, the New York City Board of Education’s Commission on Students of African Descent, cites the City University of New York’s Black Male Initiative as being too “soft.” Smith, who is also former associate provost at Baruch College, said that the CUNY programs, as far as he knows, “have no emphasis, no real substance on the issues pertaining to racism in its agenda.”

“We’re going through a period that does not want to talk about race because it is perceived that racial discrimination has ended,” he said. “We live in, as it has been called, a post-racial society. When the program was first announced, I thought it was a good idea. Yet these programs have no inclusion of history and culture for Black and Latino males. This is something that needs to be seriously addressed.”

Dr. Juan E. Gilbert, Inquiry, Discovery in Engineering and Science (IDEaS) professor and chair of the Division of Human-Centered Computing in the School of Computing at Clemson University said that his experience with African-Americans in science, technology, engineering and math, specifically, computing sciences, “tells me that there is a disconnect in motivation and instruction.” He is a recent recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

“In areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), I have seen men leave because of the ‘weed out’ aspects of the curriculum,” he continued. “Faculty often makes it very difficult to pass the ‘weed out’ courses. The instruction doesn’t fit our men very well in those courses  Men are playing games and developing different models for learning that don’t match the current instruction models that faculty are using. Therefore, it only makes sense that we are losing more of them.”

Gilbert added that students either have to learn how to learn in the academy or faculty needs to adjust to the students. One issue that comes into play is Black and Hispanic males’ ideas about masculinity, some educators say. Many students do not seek out help. Instead, they have the “I’ve got this” attitude, when indeed they may not have it all.

Professor Pedro A. Noguera, who teaches sociology at New York University, is author of The Trouble with Black Boys… And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education, (Jossey-Bass, 2008). He has explored the ways in which cultural and societal factors influence education. Noguera said he taught a class that included six males of color, and only one came to him the entire semester for consultation, even though he had made himself available to all his students.

“For so long, young men felt there is nothing really tailored toward Black and Latino males,” he said. “So their thinking is ‘we can take care of ourselves.’”

Nathaniel “Toby” Thompkins, vice president of the Twenty First Century Foundation powered by Tides, a leading Black philanthropic organization, believes that many institutions of higher education do not necessarily embody a higher level of sensitivity, care and understanding of the unique realities facing Black and Brown youth in America today.

“This impacts everything,” he said. “So many young Black and Hispanic men today struggle to create their own lessons and plans for life because the institutions of higher education and learning that are available to them don’t sufficiently create and sustain learning environments that fully prepare them to be great contributors to and benefactors of American society.”

— Clarence V. Reynolds is an independent journalist in New York. He is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and a contributing writer for The Network Journal.

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