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Addressing Hurdles to Academic Success for Minority Males

The EvoLLLution | Addressing Hurdles to Academic Success for Minority Males
Despite the attention that has been paid to postsecondary success of minority males over the past year, My Brother’s Keeper chief among them, institutions must do more and look internally to support persistence among this demographic.

The following email Q&A is with J. Luke Wood, an associate professor of community college leadership and director of the doctoral program concentration in Community College Leadership at San Diego State University. Wood also serves as the Co-Director of the Minority Male Community College Collaborative. In this interview, Wood discusses some of the most significant challenges minority males face when it comes to their postsecondary persistence and success, and shares some thoughts on strategies that could help address these issues.

1. What are some of the most significant challenges minority males face when it comes to college completion?

There are a number of significant challenges that face men of color in education. However, I’ll talk about the one challenge that is most critical to their success, at least in my opinion. Increasingly, my work has focused on the role of campus climates and cultures on student success. Men of color, like all students, need to be educated in environments where they are supported and challenged. However, support and challenge in and of themselves are not sufficient conditions for success. Educators must demonstrate an authentic care for students and must convey high expectations for their performance.

In many cases, these four elements of success—support, challenge, authentic care, and high expectations—are not in place. In communicating care and high expectations, faculty members must learn how to validate men of color. They must communicate to them that they belong, that they can succeed in school, and that they have the ability to do the work. My work with Frank Harris III demonstrates that student experiences with validation from faculty and perceptions of belonging from faculty are significantly more critical to their success in school than any background factors or out of college pressures such as work, family, and transportation issues. This demonstrates that faculty hold the key to student success in their hands.

2. There have been a number of initiatives launched recently to improve retention and completion among this group. What impact does this kind of attention have on postsecondary success for minority males?

You are right in acknowledging the proliferations of programs, conferences and initiatives designed to improve the success of men of color in college. Collectively, these efforts are often referred to as Minority Male Initiatives (or MMIs). In the community college, we have seen an expansive growth of these efforts, particularly in the past ten years. In fact, so many community colleges now have MMIs that the American Association of Community Colleges—the largest professional association representing community colleges—actually launched a database a few years ago to catalogue these programs, their services, and their initial outcomes. Of course, we can’t talk about MMIs without recognizing the most high profile MMI ever, My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), which was launched by the Obama Administration in February. MBK represents the White House’s efforts to bring attention and resources to the challenges facing young boys and men of color in society, with a primary focus on identifying and replicating best practices for education. Overall, the increasing profile of local based MMIs and MBK have enabled college leaders to have discussions about success for underrepresented men that they were apprehensive to engage in due to the politicalized nature of this work. Now, armed with this informal permission, colleges are regularly trying to change what is occurring, and they are beginning to, for the first time, start to put their resources behind established efforts.

I think the challenge now has less to do with will and more to do with uncertainty about the interventions they should be using. That is where organizations such as ours, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) come into play. We have partnered now with over 40 community colleges in eight states (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Texas) to support colleges in their efforts. Primarily, we do this through our work with the Community College Survey of Men (CCSM), an institutional-level needs assessment tool that uses data from surveys with men to provide colleges with information they can use to identify areas in need of enhanced attention. Lastly, our center is among seven centers that engage in research and practice focused on boys and men of color in education (though ours focuses specifically on community colleges). However, the national attention has already resulted in greater partnerships and collaborations between the seven centers. For example, several months ago, the seven centers released a joint report titled Advancing the Success of Boys and Men of Color in Education: Recommendations for Policymakers. Other partnerships across programs and educational leaders are also growing as a response to MBK.

3. What are a few strategies that you consider to be critical to the effort of improving postsecondary access and success among minority males?

Well, given that my research focuses on men of color in community colleges, access has not been one of my primary concerns. The reason for this is that community colleges serve as the primary pathway into postsecondary education for these men. In fact, 71 percent of Black and Latino men who begin their experiences in public postsecondary education do so at community colleges, not four-year colleges and universities. However, as may be apparent, access and success are not always intertwined. For example, only 17 percent of Black men and 15 percent of Latino men will earn either a certificate, associate’s degree, or transfer from a community college in three years. In contrast, 27 percent of White men do so. Clearly, the success rates for all men are concerning, but the inequities between men of color and their majority peers is striking. But, back to your question, you asked about strategies that can facilitate success for men of color. There are numerous strategies that can be employed, but my personal top three would include early alert systems, professional development for faculty, and institutional self-assessment.

Early alert systems are tracking systems put in place that identify students who are not making effective progress and link them with protocols to provide necessary interventions. Typically, markers that would identify students as having concerning patterns would be low test scores, missing assignments, absenteeism and late withdrawals. In an early alert system, some combination of these factors would trigger an email to be sent to counseling and advising services where an intervention specialist would then require the student to come in and meet with them. The specialists then work individually with students to understand the challenges they are facing and to provide them with necessary referrals to resources such as financial aid, tutoring services, and career services that can help them address the barriers that are impeding their success in the classroom.

Professional development for faculty and staff is also key. Many faculty lack the appropriate training to effectively teach men of color and other underrepresented groups. Part of this deals with ideology. The predominant theories in our field train educators to perceive that student success is a function of what the student does, not what the institution does. Therefore, if the student isn’t doing well, then it’s because they aren’t engaged, they aren’t making connections on campus, and they aren’t putting in the appropriate effort. However, I am chiefly informed by the work of Estela Bensimon, Shaun Harper, and Frank Harris, who suggest that student success has more to do with institutional practices and climates than students. So, many faculty and staff need to be remediated to change their perspectives on this matter, to focus more intently on what they are doing to support students. This training must focus on learning how to validate men of color by communicating that they belong and can succeed in college, to avoid microaggressive behaviors where they are unconsciously and unknowingly denigrating these men without realizing that they are doing so, and to engage in real conversations about their perspectives on men of color. We know that men of color are often viewed as criminals in wider society, the recent cases involving Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Oscar Grant III clearly demonstrate this. So then, we have to ask ourselves, how do common social conceptions of men of color in society creep into the classroom? Well, in schools and colleges boys and men of color are also criminalized. In elementary, junior high, and high school we see examples of this in suspension, expulsion, and exclusionary discipline rates for young men of color. In college then, people oftentimes talk about men of color be disengaged, without really considering how much faculty actually want to be engaged with them. Does a faculty member really want to meet with a Black or Latino male one on-one in their office, does a faculty want to ask students questions in class, meet with them after class about their progress, or interact with them informally on campus out of class. Instead of asking whether men of color are fearful of engaging in class, we need to ask educators whether they are fearful of engaging with men of color. And, from my experience, for some faculty members (not all) the answer is certainly yes. That is why my center has announced the release of our guidebook “Teaching Men of Color in the Community College” to better train faculty members on how to effectively engage with men of color.

Institutional self-assessment would be another key area for practice. There are scholars (such as myself, Frank Harris III, Victor Saenz, and Luis Ponjuan) who have rigorously and regularly investigated the experience of men of color in the community college. Based on research from ourselves as well as other key scholars in this area, my organization (M2C3) that I co-direct with Frank Harris released the Community College Student Success Inventory (which we call the CCSSI). The CCSSI identifies key areas for promising practices for institutional action and support identified in the public research. These areas include financial aid, student support services, teaching and learning, institutional research, minority male initiatives and programs, and early alert systems. Within each of these areas, we identify key recommended practices that colleges can use to assess how well they are actually positioned to foster an environment of success of men of color and other underserved students. This instrument is freely available on our website. Of course, this isn’t the only institutional self-assessment out there, but this is the only one focused on self-assessment for men of color in community colleges. So, in other words, colleges don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The wheel has already been made. All they need to do is use the wheel and identify what it is they are not currently doing and to do it.

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