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Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago enrolled about 150 first-year students this fall. Only 11 of them were Black men, in a city that’s almost 30 percent African American, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Administrators across the country want to know “where are the men, and where are all the Black men?” said Thomas Neitzke, dean of Arrupe College.
Higher education leaders are investing in a spate of initiatives to enroll and retain Black male students, who continue to stop out at high rates.
Men over all experienced an enrollment decline twice as steep as women during the pandemic. Total male undergraduate enrollment fell by 8.9 percent in spring 2021 compared to the previous spring, while female enrollment dropped 4 percent, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Men of color enrolled at particularly low rates amid a pandemic in which Black students and their families disproportionately suffered from infections, job loss and financial strains. Enrollment for Black men dropped 14.3 percent in spring 2021 compared to the previous spring, while enrollment for Black women fell 6.9 percent over the same time period. Community colleges, which faced the sharpest enrollment declines over all, lost Black men in droves; the number of Black male students enrolled in public two-year institutions plunged 21.5 percent.
“Obviously, when we look at the data, we know that we are losing our Black males at an alarming rate,” said Boyd Copeland, vice president of multicultural student services at St. Louis Community College Forest Park. “We want all of our students to be successful. We can’t allow our Black males to continue to come in here and fail out.”
The college launched the Black Male Achievers Academy this June, a six-week summer program for a cohort of Black male students designed to help them make a smooth transition to campus life, meet faculty and staff members, and accumulate some class credits ahead of the fall. Participants took at least two summer classes -- a reading course and a social science course -- and the program covers up to $3,000 of tuition over two years. So far, 39 students completed the summer program and enrolled this fall. The institution also plans to hire a student retention coordinator for the program in October to focus on wraparound supports for Black men.
“We’re just trying to keep our hands, our arms, wrapped around them and see if we can get them through,” Copeland said.
Other higher education institutions are also looking to bring on new staff specifically dedicated to recruiting and retaining men of color.
Arrupe College plans to use part of a $1.5 million grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation to add a retention specialist to its Black Men for Success initiative, a mentorship program for Black male students founded in 2016.
Neitzke said it was heard “loud and clear” that the institution needed someone dedicated to retaining Black male students, in addition to making new investments in their recruitment. He believes the protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd last summer brought a new awareness among college and university leaders that these students require specialized supports.
“I think it just renewed in institutions a new commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion across the board,” he said. “I think most universities looked at their numbers and said, ‘Here’s an area where we’re deficient.’”
He noted that the Jesuit community college’s model includes a bounty of supports -- free breakfast and lunch, laptops, and transportation to and from campus -- and still the institution struggles to enroll Black men.
Compton College, south of downtown Los Angeles, plans to hire a “director of Black and males of color success” this October, using federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the first two years of the position. The number of Black men enrolled at the college dropped to 662 from 919 students in fall 2020 compared to the previous fall, a loss of 257 students. Their retention rate was 74 percent, and their success rate -- students receiving a passing grade or higher -- was 57 percent.
The new director will be responsible for providing resources for male students from underrepresented backgrounds across academic fields, as well as professional development for faculty and staff members on how best to support men of color.
Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton, said COVID-19 relief dollars from the American Rescue Plan provided his college with an opportunity to invest in the needs of these students long term.
“Budgets are statements of values,” he said. “If you really want see more Black men be successful, what are you going to do about it? My position was, what I want to do about it is I want to commit funds to it. Hiring a permanent position was the best way for us to go.”
However, he and others noted that shrinking enrollment and low retention rates for Black men aren’t new. An analysis of 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data from the Education Trust found that nationally only 26.5 percent of Black men held a college degree, compared to 44.3 percent of white men.
“This feels to me like a two-steps-forward, one-step-back story,” said Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center. “There’s a real desperation amongst all of us to return to normal. The pandemic has been most abnormal … We should not return to normal as it pertains to recruitment and admissions practices, because normal was inequitable. Normal failed to deliver to us the kind of diversity we all say we want at our colleges and universities.”
Harper said a “complex cocktail of social forces” has held Black men back, including a dearth of Black male teachers in K-12 schools to encourage students to attend college and to serve as role models.
He noted that colleges and universities have put “tremendous effort, attention and resources” into initiatives focused on Black men since 2005. He highlighted President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, launched in 2014 and focused on opportunity gaps for young men of color. Progress, however, has been “stagnant” at best in recent years, he said.
Higher education leaders should respond to the most current enrollment declines among Black men with “tremendous concern -- and robust, multidimensional strategies,” he said. “When the data tell us that we have a problem that is racialized and gendered, the solutions to that problem have to be racialized and gendered.”
Curry said a rash of campus recruitment and retention initiatives targeting these students can’t make up for the thousands of Black male students who fall through the cracks. He wants to see more systemic institutional changes that lead to “whole-school transformation.”
“We can no longer have programs that are just for 30 to 60 or 90 students,” he said. “We miss the target when we say, ‘Oh, we have 30, or we have 60, Black students who are successful.’ But I’ve got another 1,500 … that are not. Let’s focus in on why that other 1,500 did not make it. That’s when we start to see transformation -- when we start having those types of conversations.”