Men of Color at Community College: Increasing Completion Rates

Race still plays a big part in who gets ahead in this country, and that stratification is very evident in postsecondary education. While improvements in access to education have resulted in increases in enrollment of students of color in recent years, racial disparities in degree completion still exist. And while race and income are commingled in this country, socioeconomic status does not completely explain why students of color are lagging behind their white counterparts. Data from the Department of Education show that 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of blacks and, until very recently, a higher rate for Latinos. When further disaggregating postsecondary data by gender, graduation rates for men of color in higher education lag behind not only those of white male students but also those of women of color. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute:

  • College enrollment among African-American males grew at less than half the rate of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • College enrollment of Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) males declined by 9 percent between 1990 and 2008, while enrollment among their female counterparts rose by 11 percent.
  • College enrollment among Latino males grew at about two-thirds the rate of that of their female counterparts between 1990 and 2008.
  • In 2013, the percentage of males ages 25-29 who had completed a bachelor’s degree or higher was 55 percent for AAPI students, 37 percent for whites, 17 percent for African-Americans and 13 percent for Latinos.

However, the vast majority of men of color persisting towards a postsecondary degree are doing so at community colleges. In “Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges,” the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that while men of color are underrepresented in higher education overall, those who enroll in college are more likely to attend a community college than a baccalaureate institution. The past 20 years of research on men of color tells us that the profile of these students can look a little different from their white counterparts. Men of color often delay enrollment, meaning they’ve been employed or participating in the workforce for a while before attending college, they are a little older when they return to school, and tend to be concentrated in developmental education courses at the start of their educational pathway – often because they have been out in the workforce for many years before returning to school.

In 2011, the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) was established to address the role of community colleges in educating men of color. Since so much of the previous research is focused on outcome disparities of men of color at the university level, M2C3’s primary objective is to expand the research on how men of color experience community colleges. In addition, the center is focused on research, tools, and resources to help institutions improve institutional effectiveness through a series of discussions and workshops that use faculty and staff professional development to achieve equitable student outcomes.

M2C3 research reveals that the education of men of color need to go beyond addressing the socioeconomic factors that create barriers to success and must focus on intentional culturally relevant teaching and the development of a positive campus environment that acknowledges both the racial and gender identities of students. Assessments of male students of color and best practice research point to four key relationship strategies that yield successful outcomes for men of color and can be applied to any underserved population:

  1. Build relationships from an anti-deficit perspective. Men of color are seeking postsecondary education for the same reasons as other students. Convey high expectations verbally and non-verbally. Convey mutual respect and avoid unintentional microagressions—for example, assumptions of a lack of intelligence or criminality (i.e. cheating).
  2. Focus on positive messaging that conveys “you belong here” and “you are college material.” College campuses should create an environment that welcomes and engages men of color without singling them out. Praise men of color publically, but critique privately (so as not to reinforce the “you don’t belong here” mentality many students of color feel when attending college.) Validation should be specific to their coursework and work ethic—not personality traits or athleticism.
  3. Practice authentic care. Faculty should connect to students on an individual level and make time for students outside of class. Men of color have better graduation outcomes when they have authentic interactions with faculty on a regular basis.
  4. Implement intrusive interventions. Avoid the “approach me first” mentality. Men of color are less likely to seek out help. Structure help as part of the class by making office hours mandatory for all students. Check-in frequently with students to see if they have questions or concerns and connect them directly to resources or people who can help them in other departments on campus.

While the above strategies for faculty are general and foundational guidelines that have been shown to benefit underserved men of color, M2C3 also designs campus-specific strategies and workshops based on a series of assessments and conversations with all campus stakeholders. You can even contact M2C3 staff for an institutional-level assessment of instructional areas for your campus. Faculty’s scores are compared to scores of exemplar faculty members who have a demonstrated track record of success in teaching men of color. The instrument report highlights areas where professional development activities should be concentrated. In addition, you can also access webinars recordings on educating men of color here. These strategies—and the cultural shifts they require—are essential to make meaningful changes in racial disparities in postsecondary completion rates.