Sara Weissman, Inside Higher Ed, January 19, 2022
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.