Antonio Banks was eager to join a robust Black student community as an undergraduate at California State University, San Bernardino. He was thrilled to be surrounded by other Black men “who were excited about education” like he was. But when he returned to campus as a sophomore, many of those students were missing. He heard they stopped out for different reasons: some were stuck in remedial courses and put on academic probation after struggling to complete them, while others felt alienated and isolated on campus.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of seeing them all wiped out in that first year, and it wasn’t for lack of intelligence or lack of capacity,” Banks said.
Those memories stayed with him, and now, more than a decade later, Banks, 34, is the first director of Black and males of color success at Compton College. His role, which began in late November, was created explicitly to ensure Black men stay enrolled, succeed academically and graduate.
The experience of having so many classmates leave college without graduating “really sparked my interest in trying to make educational pathways more viable for Black men,” he said.
Higher ed experts say senior level positions such as Banks’s specifically dedicated to the needs of Black men are rare, despite long-standing and staggering disparities in academic and career outcomes for Black male college students. Compton College president and CEO Keith Curry believes roles focused on Black men will become a trend at colleges and universities and that community colleges like his, that enroll high numbers of Black students, will be “at the forefront.”
“You have to have someone responsible for this work,” Curry said. “I believe that this is the model. I’m committed to it financially, and I’m committed to it because I know that we can’t do what we have done in the past. If you look at the data, the past didn’t work for all students.”
Curry’s passion for these issues also started early. He was so disturbed by the lack of diversity at the University of California, Santa Cruz, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies, that in his sophomore year he founded Destination Higher Education, a networking program for Black prospective students to meet current students.
“Now I’m in a position where I can actually make some changes to help support Black students, and I’m holding myself accountable for that,” he said.
Compton College is located south of downtown Los Angeles, a city where more than 20 percent of residents have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data. The Compton College #RealCollege survey report—conducted by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in 2019—found that about 63 percent of Compton students experienced housing insecurity that year and 23 percent had been homeless. In fall 2021, 46 percent of the student body received Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students.
Barriers to education for Black men begin long before they step foot on college campuses: Black male students are disciplined in K-12 schools at higher rates than their white male peers, according to a wide range of research. Many come to college as low-income and first-generation students and lack “navigational capital about how to successfully get through the institution” while balancing their academic work with demanding jobs, financial stressors and family responsibilities, Banks said.
“If they aren’t fortunate enough to identify someone, whether that be faculty or staff or a community member or a peer or somebody who can very early on help walk them through that process, they can be discouraged,” he added.
Banks graduated from Cal State in 2010 with a degree in liberal arts. He went on to get a master’s degree in higher education and a doctorate in educational leadership from California State University, Fullerton, where he wrote his dissertation, “Traversing the Higher Education Pipeline for African American Male Students.” He said getting involved with the student government organization, serving as a resident assistant and working in the student affairs office contributed to his perseverance.
Derrick Perkins, director of the Center for Male Engagement at the Community College of Philadelphia, founded in 2009 to serve Black men, noted that men in general aren’t “socially and culturally conditioned to ask for help,” which poses an added challenge as they try to make their way through college. He finds Black men are also more likely to feel that teachers and professors view them as unintelligent, “a threat” or “disengaged,” which impedes their learning.
The ramifications of these barriers are many. Black and Latino men enroll and graduate at lower rates than their peers. An analysis of 2018 U.S. Census Bureau data by 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. That disparity contributes to lower wages among men of color and a persistent racial wealth gap. Black men earn 73 cents and Latino men earn 71 cents for every dollar earned by white men, a report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce noted.
More than half of Black men and 33 percent of Latino men aged 18 to 24 experience housing insecurity, compared to 22 percent of white men in the same age group, according to a 2017 study from the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State University. Over a quarter of Black men and 13 percent of Latino men struggle with food insecurity. These hurdles can prevent Black men from pursuing advanced degrees and building intergenerational wealth in their families and communities.
Low enrollment and retention rates among Black men are “a national crisis” that has persisted “for decades,” Perkins said.
The academic outcomes of Latino men have also raised alarms in California and nationwide. A recent report by the Campaign for College Opportunity noted that fewer than one in 10 Latino men who enrolled in California Community Colleges in 2014–15 graduated in three years.
Curry’s concerns about male students at his college took on a renewed urgency when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He watched more than 1,000 Black and Latino men drop out of the institution.
The number of Black men enrolled at Compton fell to 662 students in fall 2020, from 919 in fall 2019, an almost 28 percent decline. Over the same period, the college lost 1,377 Latino men, a drop of more than 40 percent, to 2,030 students from 3,407. Black men’s success rate—students receiving a passing grade or higher—was 57 percent, compared to 69 percent of Latino men and 72 percent of white men in fall 2020. Then enrollment numbers continued to plunge in fall 2021, with Black male enrollment dropping about 59 percent to only 269 students and Latino male enrollment falling 53 percent to 949 students.
“It’s frustrating,” Curry said. “You talk about student success, but you know there’s a problem and you’re trying to figure out a solution.”
Colleges across the country also lost Black and Latino men at high rates during the pandemic. Black male enrollment nationwide fell 10.6 percent in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019 and dropped another 4.7 percent in fall 2021, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Latino male enrollment declined 8 percent in fall 2020 and 2.5 percent in fall 2021.
Colleges and universities have launched one pilot program after another to offer extra supports to modestly sized cohorts of Black men and find ways to help stop or at least slow the exodus. But Curry found those efforts small relative to the size of the problem.
“It was clear to me we needed to do something different,” he said.
Banks’s position is currently funded by federal COVID-19 relief money, and the district has set aside funds to maintain the position once the funding runs out. The college also used new state dollars to hire a recruiter in November focused on enrolling men of color.
Banks will be tasked with embedding supports specific to Black men and men of color across the college’s guided pathways to help students navigate the step-by-step requirements needed to graduate. The supports will include campuswide programs and tailored resources and services within each field of study. Curry said the needs of minority men in different tracks may vary and likened this approach to creating “a Black community within each of the guided pathway divisions.” Student success teams that already exist within each of the pathways will be responsible for implementing any new programs and strategies Banks devises.
“You can’t create a transformational program when you’re looking at three or four people to service 5,000 Black students,” Curry said. “You need to have everybody that’s involved in this, because it’s a part of what we do within our structure.”
Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, said efforts to hire personnel focused on Black men have cropped up “here and there” but “not in significant numbers,” in part because some colleges still fail to disaggregate their student success data by race and gender.
“If you don’t know the extent to which you’re disadvantaging Black women specifically or Black men specifically, you’re not going to go and create a position that responds to what your data are telling you,” he said.
Edward Bush, president of Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, believes positions devoted to Black male success are the “next evolution” of diversity work on college campuses. His college assigned an outreach specialist to focus on enrolling Black men in fall 2019.
“It just brings a level of expertise that doesn’t necessarily exist within our colleges,” he said.
Bush co-founded African American Male Education Network and Development in 2006, an organization to foster Black male success at California community colleges.
Since national protests erupted after the murder of George Floyd, “educational leaders are much more comfortable talking about white supremacy, structural racism, structural inequalities,” he said. “I think people’s understanding and handling of the vocabulary has improved.”
But “really it comes down to the need for resources,” he added. “And I don’t think colleges have fully turned a corner of placing resources to match that particular focus and philosophy about a need to serve African American male students.”
Harper stressed that if other colleges want to replicate Compton’s model and hire personnel focused on Black men, they also have to adequately support the people in those roles.
“Yes, it’s important to have a full-time staff member and resources to focus on unique and particular needs, challenges and experiences of Black college men, and it’s also important for the rest of the institution to be equipped with strategies and to be taught how to care and demonstrate care for Black male students,” he said. “I do not think that a college should just go out and hire a person and they’re like, ‘All right, this person is supposed to be the caretaker for all Black men on campus. Good luck.’”
He also noted that it’s important that the needs of Black women aren’t neglected on campuses because of a renewed focus on Black men. In a 2014 paper, he notes that, in the past, “Black women’s experiential realities were overshadowed by their statistical comparisons to Black men,” despite their own unique battles with racism and sexism.
While higher ed leaders expect the number and prominence of these roles to grow, it may be a slow process if the history of chief diversity officers on campuses is any indication.
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said prior to the early 2000s, campuses sometimes had staff members focused on diversity in their student affairs offices with titles like associate vice president of multicultural affairs. Gradually, colleges began to hire more diversity professionals and at senior levels, reporting to college presidents, chancellors and provosts. NADOHE started with 30 members in 2007 and now has 1,584 at colleges across the country.
“It was an evolution,” she said. “It’s not that the work wasn’t being done. It was not necessarily being done in kind of a central, coordinated way. And I think institutions themselves began to understand that if they were really going to make progress, and also to deal specifically with the unique needs of the social identity groups on their campuses, it was time to begin being more thoughtful about how the work was going to be done and how it was going to be situated.”
Before chief diversity officers became “commonplace” on campuses, college leaders questioned whether these positions were necessary or worth the resources, but they increasingly recognized that this is “specialized work,” Russell said. She noted it can also be challenging work, which is why diversity officers established an association to create a sense of community. She believes people coming into an emergent diversity role specializing in Black men may benefit from connecting with peers to swap best practices.
Perkins, of the Community College of Philadelphia, described juggling multiple personas as the head of his college’s program focused on Black men. The program at the predominantly Black institution serves up to 300 Black male students at a time and provides a summer enrichment program to help prepare incoming students for college life by providing extra academic support in English and math to prepare for course placement tests and access to support coaches throughout their time in college.
“I tell people all the time, in my particular role, I’m the director, I’m a father figure, I’m a mentor, I’m a big brother, I’m a probation officer, I’m an Uber driver, I’m a counselor, an adviser,” he said.
He believes positions dedicated to the academic success of Black men, paired with long-term funding and robust support from college leaders and colleagues, can make a difference and ultimately “should be the norm” in higher ed.
Curry said he’s already received calls from campus leaders at other community colleges in California about the job description for Banks’s position as they consider offering similar roles.
“I would love for this to be the new trend where colleges are invested in these types of positions to really look at how do you provide services to all Black students,” he said. “And how do you change the culture of your organization with the focus on students who have been marginalized?”