Since the 1960s, colleges have been working to increase black enrollments, which have lagged behind those of other groups. For the last decade, many colleges have started to worry about the falling proportions of male students at every level of higher education.
Put those two trends together and it's not shocking that black male enrollments are shockingly low at many colleges and universities, even those with good track records at attracting a diverse student body. While some demographers have noted this situation for years, many colleges have shied away from dealing with the issue head on, fearing that doing so could reinforce stereotypes, offend women, or draw conservative criticism.
This fall, however, the City University of New York -- the largest public urban university in the United States -- started the Black Male Initiative. Based on a year-long study by a panel of college presidents, deans and leading social scientists and other academics -- and assisted by a series of focus groups with black male students and black men who aren't students -- the system has developed perhaps the most ambitious program to date to attract more black men to higher education, and to help them succeed.
More than $2 million will be awarded soon for a variety of efforts: counseling programs for black men; the creation of new centers to help black men deal with academic, financial and personal issues; recruitment programs in top high schools and in prisons; and efforts to help faculty members -- male and female, of all racial backgrounds -- better reach black students.
"The more we looked at the numbers, the more chilling they were, so we thought that it was time to ask: What can a university do?" says Selma Botman, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at CUNY.
The numbers are chilling indeed. Last year, 31 percent of CUNY's 188,000 undergraduates were black. Of those black undergraduates, women outnumbered men 2 to 1 (a ratio that is quite common at colleges nationwide). The gender gap appears to be the greatest at CUNY colleges that have the largest proportion of black enrollments. Medgar Evers College, for example, is 92 percent black. Only 23 percent of those black students are men. At York College, which is 62 percent black, only 29 percent of black students are men.
One theme of CUNY officials working on the Black Male Initiative is the interrelationship between the issues facing the university system and those facing the New York City schools and economy. Here too, the challenge is obvious. At the high school level, for instance, only 31 percent of black males graduate after four years. And of the black male labor market (defined as those 16 to 64), only 55 percent are employed.
What to do?
One model that is generating a lot of talk at CUNY is the creation of special programs to focus on black men, such as the Male Development and Empowerment Center  at Medgar Evers. Despite the enormous gender gap at the college, black enrollment and retention have been edging upward the past few years, something many link to the creation of the center.
Peter A. Holomon, director of the center, says that the key to its success has been basing programs on interviews with students -- "asking the brothers why they or others are coming or not coming to school or staying in school."
Based on those interviews, the center's services include:
- "Word Is Bond," a monthly discussion about issues that affect black men -- anything from relationships to news headlines to hip hop. Whatever the designated topic is for a given month, there is also a chance for students to raise any issue affecting them, and a few academic administrators are on hand so that the students can get help instantly. According to Holomon, students who would never go to an academic administrator's office with a question they will ask in these sessions.
- "Phat Pockets," a series of financial literacy programs that Holomon says as coming "from the perspective of people who have no to low income." Topics have included cashing and making sense of paychecks, opening bank accounts, and understanding Social Security.
- Fatherhood programs that include scholarships for single fathers who have custody of their children and workshops on how fathers without custody can fulfill their parental obligations and get more involved in the lives of their children.
- "Re-entry" programs to help those finishing prison terms. Medgar Evers counselors visit prisons to identify those who might enroll and then work with them, once they do enroll, on adjusting to post-release life.
Faculty members at Medgar Evers also see the center as a way to give legitimacy to programs to which they want to attract black male students. Brenda M. Greene, a professor of English and executive director of the Center for Black Literature, says that co-sponsoring events with the center involves more black male students in selecting authors they might like to read, meet or discuss. "This is key if we are going to make race visible in the classroom, which we have to do, and if we reach out to all of our students," Greene says.
Many of these programs could, in theory, apply to men and women equally. But Holomon says that many black male students would not participate in programs that are for both men and women. "It's just a dynamic that's there. They won't talk about this stuff if they have to be afraid of the reactions from the sisters," he says.
Holomon says that the idea isn't that different from the concept behind the creation of women's centers on many campuses -- and indeed Medgar Evers had one for women long before it adopted the program for men. "This isn't about slighting the sisters, but about doing something that will work," Holomon says, adding that the black female students on the campus -- seeing the impact of the center's programs -- are among the best recruiters for the program.
The Medgar Evers effort is the kind of program that may be receiving more support from CUNY, but many other kinds of programs are also expected to be in contention. One set of grants -- to be awarded competitively -- will go to programs focused on student success for black males. Proposals being reviewed focus on preparation, retention, graduation rates and academic support. Botman says that these efforts are crucial for making sure that black men who enroll at CUNY graduate.
She notes that graduation rates and year-to-year retention rates for black males lag behind those of other groups, both at CUNY and nationally. At CUNY, only 27 percent of black men who start at a four-year institution and 15 percent of black men who start at a community college have earned a bachelor's degree six years after enrolling.
Other grants for which CUNY will be awarding funds will deal with pipeline issues -- recruiting more black men, helping black men earn equivalency degrees so that they go on to higher education, and identifying those who can move from prison to college. Other segments of CUNY's program focus on issues of criminal justice and law enforcement. For instance, CUNY's administration is currently working to make sure that a significant number of jobs related to a building boom going on at the system go to black men.
The men working on construction projects may never be CUNY students. But Botman says that the study committee for the Black Male Initiative stressed that any long-term success depends on an improved economic outlook for black men in New York City. "There was a lot of discussion on to what extent we should focus just on CUNY and to what extent we should focus on public policy issues, and the consensus was that we had to do both," Botman says.
William E. Cross Jr., a professor of psychology and African-American studies at CUNY's Graduate Center, led the "social relations" subgroup for the studies on the Black Male Initiative, and he says it is crucial that CUNY educators realize the impact on black men of larger societal trends.
Black men in New York City "live under surveillance" and in poverty, so just throwing open the doors at CUNY isn't going to magically transform things, he says. Culturally, he says, it isn't enough to have black educators as role models, but the colleges need to have people who are familiar with the language of urban black life and are comfortable using it (while at the same time not assuming that such language will be appropriate for all black students).
"Hip hop culture crosses over to issues of the underclass and poverty," Cross says. "It's one way young people have resisted and fought back, and it's a creative stance. People who run the programs need to be very familiar and comfortable with hip hop culture. But not every guy is going to want to see that."
The poverty that is one source of hip hop culture is also a factor that can't be underestimated, he says. New York City's history is full of stories of immigrant groups who arrived with nothing and worked their way up (with CUNY institutions playing a role in many of those stories). But Cross says that educators today forget that the Italian and Irish and Jewish immigrants who flocked to CUNY's City College and elsewhere had parents who had jobs -- perhaps poorly paid, non-professional positions, but jobs nonetheless -- and that was the generation before the one that entered higher education.
"If you ask other groups how they have made it, it's because society had employment at the level they were at -- period," Cross says. With today's black men, there are no decent jobs for many of them or their parents, so they are growing up in a no-income society. "This is unlike what happened for every other group. We've created a mass of redundant workers, and we're paying a price."
Cross raises these issues not to criticize the CUNY initiative -- he supports it as one part of a solution to the problems facing black men in New York City. But he says that without dealing with these societal and economic problems, progress may not be something CUNY can control.
Based on that philosophy, part of the CUNY effort will focus on criminal justice. Black men currently face a 32 percent lifetime chance of spending at least a year in jail (the comparable figure for white men is 6 percent). Jeremy Travis, president of CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that CUNY will not turn things around with black men unless it plays a role in bringing down the percentage of incarcerated black men -- and working with those who are behind bars.
Given John Jay's focus, the college will take a lead role in this area. On the policy level, Travis said that there will be an increased push for faculty research on inequities in the criminal justice system and alternatives to incarceration. But on more practical levels, John Jay will be working to recruit more minority students to its police training programs, to work with researchers to identify high school students who can be recruited to college (and away from crime), to create a prisoner re-entry program that might be adopted by other CUNY colleges, and to work on making the campus welcoming to black students who enroll.
In all of the above, he says that "a systematic approach" is key, with researchers constantly evaluating what is working and what isn't -- and that the focus needs to be on black men. Too often in the past, he says, such efforts may have been started and had successes for some groups, but not for black men.
Travis says that this is a "historic moment," both in the negative sense (unprecedented percentages of the black population ending up behind bars) and in a positive sense (the number of CUNY leaders getting involved in recruiting more black men). Given CUNY's history of helping those who other colleges ignore, "we have a moral voice to raise here," Travis says.
"If the nation's largest urban public university gets serious about slippage that is being experienced by black men in our society, we can raise the profile of this issue and show what can be done," he says.
CUNY is not the only higher education system taking the issue of black men seriously. Notably, one of the other systems with ambitious plans is the University System of Georgia, which in many ways is quite a contrast to CUNY; the Georgia system has many rural institutions, some historically black institutions, and is spread across an entire state. Like CUNY, however, Georgia has a two-to-one ratio of black women to black men enrolled as students (40,043 to 18,714 headcount in 2004).
Georgia's African-American Male Initiative  just handed out its third round of grants (this round's total was $200,000) to institutions to help them improve the recruitment and retention of black men.
Coastal Georgia Community College is receiving support, for example, for a program that identifies black male seventh-graders with academic problems and provides them with extra academic help and (officials hope) a path to stay in school and not drop out. Valdosta State University is receiving funds for the Heroes Institute (Helping Everyone Research Optimum Educational Success) in which black men at Valdosta State serve as mentors for local ninth-graders who are black males.
Another effort receiving support was a program started this year at the University of West Georgia  in which a group of black male freshmen are living in the same dormitory while taking courses as a cohort and receiving extra guidance and support.
In the three years that Georgia has been awarding grants, black male enrollment has increased by 13 percent.
Botman, the CUNY vice chancellor, says that tracking performance will be a big part of the system's plans. She notes that CUNY's campus presidents are given measures by which their performance will be reviewed and their salaries will be set. Matthew Goldstein, CUNY's chancellor, recently told all the campus presidents that their success in applying the Black Male Initiative on their campuses would be a new performance measure in their reviews.
"He's very serious about this, and cares deeply about this," Botman says. She adds that the programs for black men will have a positive ripple effect on other students as well. "Ultimately this is about student-centered programs," she says. Just as CUNY is focusing on black males now, the university will keep the attitude that any group that is found to be not succeeding deserves focus. Right now, however, she says that the situation with black males requires attention.
Says Botman: "It's the right thing to do."