• August 2, 2014

Minority Male Students Face Challenge to Achieve at Community Colleges

Although black and Latino male students enter community colleges with higher aspirations than those of their white peers, white men are six times as likely to graduate in three years with a certificate or degree, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas here.

The report’s findings are all the more puzzling, it says, given that minority men are more engaged than their white classmates in tutoring, study-skills sessions, and other practices the center identifies as key to college success.

The report, "Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community College," is based on responses from more than 145,000 male community-college students to the center’s annual survey on student engagement from 2010 to 2012.

The report also drew on more than 30 focus groups with black, Latino, and white male students at community colleges; the national convention of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, which recognizes community-college students; and six faculty and staff focus groups.

In one of the earliest focus groups that was filmed, a young black student at a Texas community college, identified only as James, told the interviewer in August 2009 that he was pumped up about college because he was "all about learning new things." In subsequent interviews over the next few months, however, his demeanor became more subdued, and by November he was visibly slumping, his face partially obscured by his orange hoodie. College, he concluded, wasn’t for him.

The center’s director, Kay M. McClenney, shook her head and sighed as she watched the clip with a reporter during an interview at her office. "How is it we can start out with a group of students who are so jazzed up and lose them so quickly?" she asked.

‘Perplexing’ Patterns

That’s what the center’s researchers set out to learn.

The report describes "perplexing" patterns: Black men are the most engaged in tutoring and orientation sessions but report the least success. Latinos are in between, and white men report the lowest levels of engagement at almost every level but the most success.

For example, 39 percent of the black men with C-minus averages said they never cut classes, compared with 31 percent of Latinos and 24 percent of white men.

But only 5 percent of black men and Latinos attending community colleges earn degrees or certificates within three years, compared with 32 percent of white men.

One contributing factor to the pattern: Minority students tend to enter college with weaker academic skills. For instance, only 14 percent of black students and 30 percent of Latinos meet ACT college-readiness standards in mathematics, while 53 percent of white students do. For reading, the corresponding percentages are 16, 29, and 54.

"The issue is not that these students are not capable of doing college-level work," the report says. "It is that too many of them have not, for myriad reasons, had the kinds of educational experiences that would effectively maximize those capabilities."

‘Fixing’ Students

Another factor dragging down the performance of minority students, according to the report, is the fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype.

The report draws heavily on the research of Claude M. Steele, dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Students experience "stereotype threat," he argues, when they feel pressure not to conform to a negative stereotype, whether it’s women in a science class or black men in a college course.

That can happen, the report’s authors agree, when educators reach out to students with the best of intentions, such as when admissions counselors steer students into special programs based on "deficit" factors that might hold them back, like growing up poor or struggling with math.

"By using these programmatic approaches," the report says, "colleges risk having an emphasis on 'fixing' students" rather than tapping into their strengths.

Admissions counselors and professors should focus on students’ assets, not their deficits, said Shaun R. Harper, an associate professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, who has led studies on black male achievement. The Texas center's report includes some of his findings and strategies for helping minority men succeed in college.

And instead of offering small, "boutique" programs for minority students that attract just a few dozen students, Ms. McClenney said, colleges should extend programs like mandatory study-skills classes, learning communities, and tutoring to all students. Minority students will benefit disproportionately from such strategies, she said, but they won’t feel embarrassed by participating or feel that they’re being singled out as "at risk."

Victor B. Sáenz, an associate professor of educational administration on the Austin campus, served on the advisory committee for the latest survey. While he endorses the idea of making support programs available to more students, he thinks many of the ones focused on minority males are too small and untested to extend to all students now. Despite their limitations, he said, "they serve as an important signal to internal and external communities within community colleges that these institutions are prioritizing this student population."

Connecting With Students

Students across all races and genders in the survey cited similar keys to success: building strong personal connections on the campus, being held to high expectations, having instructors who are committed to their achievement, and being intensively engaged in the academic experience, both in and out of the classroom.

How might financially strapped colleges with 1,000 students to every adviser provide the kind of guidance the report calls for? Ms. McClenney said they could beef up their counseling through group advising sessions, peer tutoring, and a culture that encourages everyone—maintenance and cafeteria workers, secretaries, and instructors—to connect personally with students.

Within racial and ethnic lines, students who are more engaged with their institutions, who take advantage of study groups and skills classes, perform better, the report concludes. So even if black students as a whole are more engaged than white students but fare worse, that has more to do with where they’re starting out. "When you start so far behind the starting line," Ms. McClenney said, "you can run faster and work harder, but you’re still not going to catch up."

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