Many colleges label some or all of their black male students "at risk." While not denying those risks, Jackson Community College is trying for a different label: Men of Merit.
At Jackson, African American male students have an average fall-to-fall retention rate that is nine percentage points lower than that of the overall student population; 43 percent compared to 52 percent. Also, at 1.88, the average GPA of African American male students at Jackson does not meet the college's standard for passing.
Still, some African American men at the community college believe they can beat the odds if they stick together and look out for one another, both in and outside of the classroom. That is where Men of Merit comes into play.
In fall 2008, after hosting a large academic summit  on how to increase student success among African American males and receiving an Achieving the Dream  grant to explore various possibilities, Jackson gathered and began nurturing a group of African American men, with a tripartite goal: increasing their retention, boosting their campus and community engagement, and improving their academic success. The program did not seek out honors students, but those who for various reasons might be called "at risk" elsewhere – students who did not necessarily have the best pre-college preparation and who, in a few cases, had served time.
Still, jump-starting a student success initiative aimed at only 3 percent of the college’s enrollment – African American males – did not come without its set of doubters. Jackson, located in central Michigan about 35 miles south of Lansing and 40 miles west of Ann Arbor, serves a predominantly white community .
“There were those who asked, ‘Why are you targeting this group?’ ” said Lee Hampton, director of multicultural relations and coordinator of Men of Merit. “We let the data drive us in our decision making. Who is the most underrepresented group on campus? Who comes to college disproportionately unprepared? All the data said, and not be to discriminatory, these students disproportionately face more challenges than other students.”
Hampton argued that the program is about “equity” and not necessarily “equality.” He compared this program aimed at African American men and the institution’s larger student success initiatives to two patients entering an emergency room: one having a heart attack and another with a broken toe. In the case of the two patients, he argued that both are treated with “equity” by the doctors but not “equality” – noting, of course, that the heart attack patient takes precedence. Still, Hampton noted that all Jackson students, no matter their race, ethnicity or gender, are welcome to join the group with the understanding that its goal is to support African American male students.
Meet the Men
The group of African American men, most of whom were either encouraged by faculty or current members to attend, holds bi-weekly meetings at which they check up on each other’s progress in the classroom. The students take it upon themselves to mentor one another and tutor fellow members in subjects in which they excel.
“There is a lot of camaraderie,” said Anton Allen, a 40-year-old sophomore studying business administration and a founding member of Men of Merit who received the college's outstanding student award  last year. “If one of our members is falling or struggling, we grab that member and bring them up. There’s nothing like having someone who believes in you.”
Also, at each meeting, a successful African American “community leader” is brought in to talk to the group and hold question-and-answer sessions. In the past, local business owners have talked about financial literacy and job interviewing etiquette; government officials have offered pointers on public speaking and how to communicate effectively. Group facilitators stress the importance of presenting these students with African American adults and mentors to whom they can look up, and in whom they can see themselves.
Men of Merit, benefiting from the mentorship of community leaders, also do their fair share to help those around them. The group regularly makes visits to elementary schools to read to classes and stress the importance of doing well in school. Additionally, they give presentations to local middle and high schools about their experiences in college.
“When we go to these schools and speak to these children, there’s nothing more rewarding,” Allen said. “These kids have never seen a group of educated and successful guys in Jackson like this. When we leave, they all say, ‘I want to go to college.’ ”
Members of the Men of Merit hope, through their interactions with the local community, they can change perceptions of African American males, one person at a time.
“Everyone raises that eyebrow when they see a group of sophisticated black males,” said Eric Howell, a 19-year-old freshman and a new member of Men of Merit. “We’re not out there with our jeans sagging. We’re in unison and we’re there with a purpose. We’re not living in that negative stereotype, and we want to prove that wrong. We do get some people who don’t want to give us the time of day, but then they listen to what we’re about and we change their minds.”
Others in the group hope their example will inspire other African American men in Jackson to pursue an education and reach their goals.
“We face some criticisms and challenges in the community,” said John Brandon, a 25-year-old sophomore studying mathematics and a founding member of Men of Merit who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan while in the military. “In some of my higher level classes, sometimes I’m the only African American student. Still, the fact that I can leave that classroom and come to a Men of Merit meeting creates a bond among us and furthers relationships. It means the most to me that we’re all making progress against the African American stereotype. Then, we can go out and tell other students that same story.”
Though the Men or Merit program is only a year and a half old, it is showing initial signs of success. The average fall-to-fall retention rate of participants is 5 percentage points higher than that of all African American male students; 48 compared to 43 percent. It is, however, still four percentage points lower than the average for all students.
Also, last fall, the average GPA of participants was significantly higher than that of all African American male students; 2.44 compared to 1.88. The program is also partially credited with the 80 percent increase in African American male enrollment since 2006.
Men of Merit has become such a popular program for African American students at Jackson that many are inquiring of Hampton how they can get involved. A similar program for African American women, called Sisters of Strength, also sprouted up on the campus last semester.
Those behind Men of Merit acknowledge their ultimate goal. “I look forward to the day when a group like Men of Merit is not needed and these students can go at it on their own,” said Amy Leighton, a co-facilitator of the group and a faculty adviser of the college’s center for student success.