In every sector of higher education, the gender gap among black students is causing worries. With 60 percent female enrollment common, and higher figures on many campuses, educators worry about how they can recruit and retain black males.
A growing number of community colleges are going beyond recruitment and retention programs to creating formal classes for and about black men and the issues they face. "We started to look at the question of who is not at the table," said Jennifer Wimbish, president of Cedar Valley College, at a discussion of these programs Monday in Tampa, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Cedar Valley is part of the Dallas Community College District, and 57.8 percent of the college's students are black. More than 61 percent of black students (and other students) are women at the college. Wimbish said that her research found that among Latino students, who make up only 12 percent of the population, male students were graduating at much higher levels than black males.
"Any way you look at it, this was a black male issue," Wimbish said.
For the past few semesters, Cedar Valley has created a special section of a human development course, and it focuses on black male issues. Officially, the class is open to all, and one semester a woman enrolled, but students are told of the emphasis on black men at the beginning, and those who aren't black men have with that one exception enrolled in other sections.
Joel Riley, who developed and leads the course, said that the topics include academics, social dynamics, psychology and values. He leads discussions with students, linked to readings, about how various factors in their lives may encourage or discourage their academic and personal success. The male students tend to ask "why there isn't eye candy" at the first session, Riley said, but come to appreciate the opportunity to focus on their issues.
Riley does not hesitate to offer guidance that's not just academic. In discussing rites of passage, he said he tells students that fathering a child out of wedlock and doing time in jail "are not acceptable rites of passage," although he also talks about their impact knowing that some of his students have in fact experienced those rites of passage.
In addition to reading and writing assignments, students must select a "personal growth project" in which they identify an area on which they will work and report over the semester.
A group of black community college presidents met Monday in Tampa to consider how to get such programs more support and how to focus more attention on what community colleges can do to help black males.
Wayne Community College, in North Carolina, has created the Minority Male Mentoring Group, which mixes both classroom and out-of-classroom experiences. To be selected, students must have multiple "high risk" factors, such as low placement test scores, economic hardship, a history of substance abuse or legal problems.
But Ray Burrell, division head for business and computer technologies at the college, stressed that other criteria make sure that the help goes to students willing to make a real commitment. They must be enrolled full time, pledge to attend various programs, and agree to mentor another student and participate in community service once they proceed with the program.
"We want students who will be on a timeline to earn a degree," Burrell said.
The students participate in a series of seminars and workshops, travel to local colleges and other educational sites, and are assigned mentors -- both from the faculty and the local area. As at Cedar Valley, there is an emphasis both on academic skills and social skills that will set someone on a path to career success. On part of the program at Wayne is "dress up Friday," where the students wear suits and ties.
In only a few years, the college has seen some dramatic improvements in retention from one semester to the next, with some cohorts of the black men in the program achieving 100 percent return rates (compared to rates of between 40 and 70 percent for semester-to-semester retention of black men not in the program). The program has seen graduates obtain jobs and transfer to four-year colleges, and those in the program are meeting their community service obligations.
But the effort is small, with only 25 participants last year.
A similar program at North Carolina's Johnston Community College is also seeing good results. Of the 15 students currently in the program, all are participating regularly, holding down part-time jobs and achieving acceptable grade-point averages. Donald Reichard, president of the college, said events include study strategies, memory enhancement skills, personal finance -- along with small group meetings with educators from colleges throughout the state.
Burrell said it's important to recognize that even if programs like this succeed, the issues involving black men are not going to be fixed in any speedy way. "This isn't going to happen next year or in the next 10 years, but we can start," he said.