New research focuses on the problem of retaining Black male community college students
By Starita Smith
LOS ANGELES — One of the greatest challenges facing community colleges is how to keep Black male students long enough for them to obtain a degree or the preparation necessary to transfer to a four-year school.Now, new research being conducted here by Preston Hampton, an African American doctoral student at the University of Southern California, may help illuminate some of the murkiness that shrouds the issue.That can’t happen too soon, contends Hampton, who says that statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education reveal that the persistence rate for Black males earning a degree or transferring is only about 9 percent.That’s less than half that of White male and female college students, male and female Hispanic students, and Black female college students, Education Department research shows.Hampton, an academic counselor at Cerritos College in nearby Norwalk, is conducting the research along with his dissertation adviser, Linda Serra Hagedorn, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California.After studying the records of about 200 students enrolled at Cerritos for fall 1995, 1996, and spring 1997, Hampton concluded that clear goals are a key part of the success of Black male students who do well in college.Those who know what they want to achieve in college, including having a well-defined major do much better than those who enroll undeclared majors and ill-defined ideas about their academic goals, he says.Hampton first became interested in Black male college students’ plight while working at Cerritos, where he has worked as a counselor for a decade and witnessed their struggles first hand. He says the situation has worsened with the rapid shifts here in southern California’s ethnic demographics over the past decade. Cerritos’ African American student enrollment has jumped from about 2 percent to 8.8 percent in that time.“When the college was founded 43 years ago, it had a 98, 99 percent Caucasian student population,” says Hampton, adding that Chicanos and Latinos now account for 40 percent of student enrollment at the college.“When I came here 10 years ago, I observed that African American students were not progressing through the community college curriculum,” Hampton says. “In ’91, I set out to do things to help them. I organized a conference for African American men and included Latino men.”Among the speakers at the conferences were experts in college student retention from all over California. Hampton continued his efforts. When he was choosing a dissertation subject, Hagedorn says he told her of his concerns.“He said he wanted to make a difference, and he said a lot of things they were doing didn’t appear to be working,” Hagedorn recalls.The first step in the research was to examine what kinds of studies had been conducted in the past. Hampton discovered numerous studies of the persistence of students at traditional colleges and universities.But he found a paucity of literature on the persistence rate and retention of African American male college students especially for Black male students enrolled at the nation’s community colleges.That discovery disheartened Hampton because he knew from observing the Black male students at Cerritos that there was a desperate need to determine what it takes to prevent those students from dropping out or failing especially since community colleges increasingly are the school of choice for Blacks. The country’s 1,250 two-year institutions, with 5.4 million credit students, enroll 46 percent of all African American college students.Community colleges even enroll more African American students today than the nation’s 118 historically Black colleges and universities, which draw about one in five of all Black students seeking a higher education, experts say.Even research on Black male community college students is so scant that Hampton can count the list of studies on one hand. He and Hagedorn say they found studies on traditional college students useful.“One of the things we found was that goals were especially important for this population of men,” Hagedorn says. “If they declared their majors early, knew what they wanted to study, knew what they wanted to be,” they were more successful.“The men who didn’t know what they wanted to do, these are the men who did not persist,” she says.Another key factor in the persistence rate was Black male students’ academic preparedness. The two researchers found many students hadn’t taken as many high school math and English classes as students in other groups.Hampton discovered a large percentage of Black males have attended schools where students were not exposed to the wider world beyond the schoolyards and high school campuses.Consequently, Hampton contends, they were handicapped in their ability to set academic or life goals because they simply couldn’t fathom the wide array of possibilities that awaited them after high school graduation.One of their findings was that although more than 60 percent of Black male students say they believed they needed remedial help, only a small percentage took advantage of the developmental courses their college offered.Hampton hopes further study will reveal why those students don’t seek help. His hunch is that they shy away from such help because they feel uncomfortable and because they identify with a peer group that rarely seeks out remediation.“In our sample, unless they were athletes, they don’t come in for help,” Hampton says. “We have to look at the outreach to African American men with a goal of helping them clarify objectives.”Hagedorn believes urging Black male students to set academic goals could be key to persuading more students to take advantage of remedial courses, tutors, and other study aides offered by colleges.Another major difference between Black male students and their counterparts in other groups is that more Black male college students tended to have more family responsibilities and a greater level of them, the researchers say.Although Hampton’s dissertation will not be completed until December, he and Hagedorn are disseminating their results. Hampton recently gave a speech at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.Hampton says he has but one goal: “I don’t care where a Black man goes to school, just that he must go and finish,” he says. “I chose a community college for my research because I’m here. But there has been so little research, I’m glad I did it.”
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