Addressing the Crisis Among Men of Color in Higher Education

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by Gregory J. Vincent

Growing up wasn’t easy for Anthony Heaven. As an African-American male living in a city where the school-to-prison pipeline seemed to run through every neighborhood, Anthony tackled his share of race-based and socioeconomic obstacles to higher education.

A native of Detroit, Anthony left home at age 15 to live with his grandparents to avoid difficult family circumstances. With the support of a village, including his family members, mentors and educators, Anthony became the first in his family to attend college and was elected student government president at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A former McNair Scholar, Anthony is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in educational administration at The University of Texas at Austin. He hopes to change the odds of opportunities for young men such as himself.

Anthony is just one of many men of color who faces a series of extra hurdles when it comes to pursuing college or a graduate degree. The representation of African-American and Latino men in higher education is the worst it has been in the last 30 years. Nationwide, African-American men comprise 7.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, yet the average Black male enrollment rate at the nation’s 50 public flagship universities is only 2.8 percent of undergraduates. Latino males have the lowest high school graduation rates as well as the lowest college enrollment and completion rates of any subgroup.

The abysmal underrepresentation of men of color on college campuses is symptomatic of admissions processes, which have fallen under strict scrutiny. It is also indicative of the larger lack of research on, support for and access to higher education for young men of color. The reasons why this opportunity gap exists are myriad and important to identify. Even more crucial are effective solutions to this gap made possible through research and evidence-based practices. It is up to us to usher in a more positive trend in higher education, and, at The University of Texas Austin, we aim to lead that trend.

The UT Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) projects it will spend just under $6 million in staffing, student teaching, programming and outreach funds for men of color initiatives over a 10-year period, through 2020. With the unflagging support of UT President William Powers Jr. and inspired by the model of former director of the Community College Leadership Program, Dr. John E. Roueche, the DDCE currently funds these projects at nearly $750,000 a year.

Similar to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, our commitment to close the opportunity gap involves both academic initiatives and partnerships with community and philanthropic organizations. In doing so, we are able to engage men of color across the entire educational spectrum, from pre-K through doctoral degrees.

One such initiative is Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success), which conducts research about Latino male educational experiences and mentors males of color across Central Texas. UT Austin is also home to the African American Male Research Initiative (AAMRI), a faculty-led academic initiative designed to increase the four-year graduation rate for African-American males.

AAMRI faculty and staff also mentor Black males through graduate school and research the best practices to achieve Black male excellence. Bringing together both groups is the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, a newly launched statewide pre-K-16 consortium for student success that combines the power of more than a dozen universities, community colleges and school districts across Texas.

Our partnerships with community-based organizations are similarly powerful. The DDCE successfully incubated to independence the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, an organization deeply involved with supporting in-school suspension programs in order to break the school-to-prison cycle. It partners with 100 Black Men, Inc. to foster the intellectual, social and economic empowerment of young African-American men through mentoring and camaraderie. It supports the Communities in Schools program X-Y Zone, a dropout prevention program teaching at-risk Black and Hispanic men essential life skills that keep them on the path toward high school graduation.

The opportunity gap for young men of color is the crisis of our time. We in higher education must be steadfast in our commitment to diversity, and that remains doubly true when it comes to educational access for those groups most in need. With research initiatives and community partnerships that reach young men across the educational pipeline, UT Austin is working diligently to address this crisis. Every time I meet with the talented Anthony Heaven to discuss his thesis or the latest headline in education, I am reminded of why.

Dr. Gregory J. Vincent is vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. He is both a professor of law and the W. K. Kellogg Professor of Community College Leadership in the Department of Educational Administration.

This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the RGC Forum, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education. For additional information, email mbmathis@national.edu or call 512-813-2300.

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