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This piece concerns the reasons why relatively few Black men become vertical (or upward) transfer students (transferring from associate to bachelor’s programs). Transfer offices act as bridges to access higher education. They exist as portals into and out of material realities. Access to higher education and mobility from poverty is paramount for the individual student, but how the intra- and intergenerational socioeconomic growth higher education affords the children (and grandchildren) of the student is what cements higher education accessibility as a best practice for social mobility (Attewell and Lavin).

Circular image highlighting the three components of the associate to bachelor's degree

City University of New York

Although I have been at the City University of New York as a student, adjunct and/or staff member for 15 years, I have been the director of transfer services at CUNY’s Hostos Community College for less than nine months. One of the first things I learned in this role was that a tremendous amount of work is being done to strengthen the infrastructure of transferring at CUNY (for example, the work of the A2B—associate’s to bachelor’s—group). These brilliant minds are building systems to ease the transfer process for students. Furthermore, there is space for people doing the work at various institutions to enter the conversation with questions and challenges.

As I began to analyze historical data on access to higher education via transfer, a lacuna appeared—relatively few Black men are enrolling in community colleges and therefore they are not transferring to four-year CUNY colleges. According to CUNY’s interactive Student Data Book, in fall 2022, of the 52,374 students enrolled in associate’s degree programs at CUNY’s seven community colleges, only 13.8 percent of them were Black men.

That number is similar at Hostos, where 13 percent of the 4,303 students enrolled are Black men. It is not a big jump to draw a line from the paucity of Black male community college students through to the paucity of Black male transfer students, finishing at the paucity of four-year Black male college students. In fall 2022, of CUNY’s 11,130 transfer students, only 939 (8.3 percent) were Black men; Black men are leaking out of the vertical transfer pipeline more than the average student, a fact that is also true nationally.

One of the challenges in understanding and addressing leaks in the vertical transfer pipeline is that the students involved are sometimes mentioned as faceless, identity-less percentages represented by diminishing line graphs. It is imperative that we name these students. We must ask ourselves, “Who are the students not going to college and vertically transferring?” The answer is: Black men.

Black men are more likely to seek out postsecondary education at two-year colleges, with 81.9 percent attending public community colleges, and 43 percent of those students indicating they are interested in transferring after community college. Luke Wood and Robert Palmer’s findings in their article “The Likelihood of Transfer for Black Males in Community Colleges: Examining the Effects of Engagement Using Multilevel, Multinomial Modeling” is a tremendous asset to help transfer offices be purposeful about improving the transfer process for Black men.

These researchers found a negative correlation between the number of hours that students worked and their likelihood of transfer (the more hours worked, the less likely was transfer). In addition, the researchers found a positive correlation between students being involved in extracurricular activities and their likelihood of transfer (the more involvement, the more likely was transfer). Students with children, or who were taking care of parents/grandparents, had a lower likelihood of transfer. These findings provide support for there being a causal relationship between the number of hours a student works and their likelihood of transferring. These are important findings, but unsurprising.

Wood and Palmer also found that greater use of campus services was associated with fewer Black men transferring. Since research has shown that campus resources are integral to the success of community college and transfer students, this finding demands our attention. Why would this be the case for Black men? Academic advisement is critical at each point of the transfer process. However, this study found that “students who use these services more (particularly academic advising) might become increasingly aware of the expectations around transferring and become less likely to perceive it as [an] attainable goal” (p. 283).

Another factor important in understanding the paucity of vertical-transfer Black males has to do with resources. When you are a poor student, college actually costs more—you also have to pay opportunity costs. Lolita Tabron and Terah Venzant Chambers’s article “What Is Being Black and High Achieving Going to Cost Me in Your School? Students Speak Out About Their Educational Experiences Through a Racial Opportunity Cost Lens” explains that opportunity cost is defined by economists as “the inherent trade-offs or value of missed opportunities involved in everyday decision making” (p. 125).

Dean Audant of Hostos Community College wrote in fall 2022 that the opportunity cost of attending college is higher than ever. Even higher is the racial opportunity cost that poor Black students face. Racial opportunity cost (ROC) is a theoretical framework developed by two Black women interested in a “transformation of the future”: Lolita Tabron and Terah Venzant Chambers (p. 127). ROC is defined as “trade-offs or the value of missed opportunities that students of color forfeit to achieve academic success in white-normed environments” (p. 125).

This framework can be used “to examine policies and practices at the school level and better understand the resultant opportunity costs to individual students of color who are working to navigate that environment to achieve academic success” (p. 125). A central aspect of ROC is that education plays a central role in perpetuating inequality. ROCs are expressed in three ways: psycho-social costs, representation costs and community costs, and all result from pursuing academic success in education environments where success is defined in particular, racially coded ways.”

I want to be clear that I do not have answers for how to address Black male students’ ROCs. I do not even know definitively what causes what. I do have seeds of thought. ROC is a response to white-normed environments and helps define the increased cost of education to Black students. Many CUNY colleges would not describe themselves as white-normed institutions because the majority of their students are not white. However, CUNY colleges are not hidden under a magical cloak where the long tentacles of racist ideology cannot penetrate.

At CUNY’s Queensborough Community College, Amaris Matos, assistant vice president of equity, inclusion and belonging, explained, “What we discovered was that while Queensborough offers multiple, effective small-scale initiatives that serve Black and Latino males, the college lacks a comprehensive infrastructure to maximize the impact of the available resources.” This describes what many of our colleges experience.

Here is a final thought that, while not fully formed, is foundational in my practice as a CUNY staff member: the lacerations of anti-Blackness cut deep. In classrooms and offices full of people of color, such as at CUNY, anti-Black comments and rhetoric are deafeningly loud. The complexity of race in this country is a tangled matrix of domination that cannot be unraveled through “diversity” only.

For those of us in institutions where many members of our recent and generational immigrant population do not claim “Blackness,” how do we name the anti-Black impulse inherent in saying “I am not Black; I am [insert nationality]” without lumping them all under one category and erasing the identities of Black Americans? There needs to be more deliberate work toward understanding the differences in lived experiences of Black, Afro-Latine and Black immigrant students. Working toward answering this challenge, in addition to ensuring that Black men have adequate resources of all sorts, will help us provide an environment in which Black men’s racial opportunity cost in attending college does not crush their higher education motivation.

Rocio Rayo is currently the director of transfer services at Hostos Community College. She graduated from Hostos Community College in 2011 and completed her B.A./M.A. in history at the City College of New York in 2014. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in anthropology at the Graduate Center and developing a theory of motherhood by investigating the birthplace of women’s militancy—comparing Nicaraguan and Irish women’s anticolonial revolutionary involvement. She can be seen on most nights and weekends with her wife, cheering the loudest at high school sporting events.

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