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How to Help Black and Latino Men Succeed at Community Colleges and Beyond

Episode 119

September 13, 2022 22 minutes


EAB’s Tara Zirkel, Kayla Laughton, and Joshua Ddamulira share findings from their listening tour of more than 20 community college presidents to uncover the best ways to help Black and Latino men persist and succeed at community colleges. The three review statistics that underscore the challenge and isolate five top strategies to make significant progress.

They also discuss ways to overcome funding challenges by partnering with community-based organizations that can help create on-ramps to professional careers for these students.



0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. Today, we examine ways that community colleges are working to build a stronger sense of belonging and engagement among Black and Latino men enrolled at their institutions. Our experts gather these insights through conversations with more than 20 presidents at a diverse set of community colleges around the country to find out what’s working and what isn’t in their efforts to help these students achieve their educational goals. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:48.1 Tara Zirkel: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. My name is Tara Zirkel. I’m relatively new to EAB, but I’ve been working in higher ed for 15 years with much of that time devoted to helping community colleges and two-year institutions recruit and support students. With me today are two of my colleagues, Kayla Laughton and Josh Ddamulira, who have been studying some of the problems around student retention particularly in the two-year space. And would you both mind introducing yourselves and telling us briefly what you do at EAB?

0:01:17.7 Kayla Laughton: So hi, everyone. My name is Kayla Laughton and I’m a researcher at EAB specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion research for student success.

0:01:30.5 Josh Ddamulira: Thanks, Tara, for having us on. Happy to be here. My name is Josh Ddamulira and I’m a researcher with EAB. For the past 10 months, I’ve been working on best practice research to help university leaders cultivate diversity, foster inclusion and promote equity for faculty and students. In the last five months, Kayla and I have been exploring student success with two specific student populations, which we’ll get into in a little bit.

0:01:58.5 TZ: And so it’s no secret that the percentage of men enrolling in college and earning a degree is dropping nationwide, and this has been especially true in community colleges. We also know that improving community college persistence has been an ongoing challenge for decades, and this is especially true for Black and Latino men who stop out at higher rates than White men. So today, we’re going to focus on how colleges are keeping young men engaged and on track to reaching their goals, whether that’s earning an Associate’s degree and joining the workforce or transferring to a four-year school. So Josh, do you wanna talk a little bit more about the work you and Kayla have been doing around this issue?

0:02:35.3 JD: Sure. Something that we’ve been hearing from quite a few institutions is this “crisis with men”. But we can’t just stop at men. It’s important to peel the layer back and look at Black and Latino males’ experiences, which as you noted, aren’t the same as their peers. So before the pandemic, both two and four-year institutions had an enrollment issue. And the pandemic exacerbated it, fanning the flames specifically for Black and Latino men. So where overall enrollment dropped 13% for community colleges since 2019, a fair amount of Black men disappeared with their enrollment dropping 21%. For Latino men, we saw similar numbers. These students were stopping out of school or delaying enrollment at pretty significant rates.

0:03:27.4 JD: I wanna pause here and note that we are talking about historically marginalized populations. And an incomplete and deficit model analysis would be to conclude that these students are the problem, but Black and Brown communities have been subjected to policies that have disadvantaged them for generations, especially in the education space. We had one university leader tell us, and his words still stick with me, “Black people were denied learning and then they were begrudgingly taught.” The implication of that we see today with the types of K-12 schools many Black and Latino male students have access to. And how… And we have to ask ourselves, “How are these spaces ultimately preparing them for community colleges and beyond?” With our research, we’re thinking about how institutions can build a sense of belonging where Black and Latino men feel like they can excel in higher ed, not just academically, but also professionally. EAB recently spoke with more than 20 community college presidents to learn not just about their student challenges, but their initiatives to improve retention for Black and Latino male students.

0:04:35.5 TZ: I really wanna thank you for that very important historical context. And I also wanted to ask Kayla, why did you choose to prioritize talking to presidents specifically on this topic?

0:04:47.3 KL: So we chose to speak with community college presidents because community colleges have historically served a large portion of the Black and Latino college population. And because of this large and extensive history, we wanted to learn what has and hasn’t worked with… Worked for them throughout history, and especially when it comes to supporting, retaining and graduating Black and Latino men.

0:05:14.5 JD: And I’ll quickly chime in here and say it’s important to target community college presidents because they set the vision for campus, which includes campus culture and academic goals. If cultivating diversity and fostering inclusion is a priority with students, faculty and staff, community college presidents have the power to move the needle on those fronts.

0:05:35.8 TZ: I really love that observation about culture and how we all play a role in the culture that we start at our institutions. And I’d love to understand more about too about how did you pick the community college presidents who provided input for this project?

0:05:49.3 JD: Yeah, so we spoke to a variety of two-years. We had geographic diversity. So we heard from institutions on both coasts, from New Mexico, California on the West Coast and New York on the East Coast. We spoke with some southern schools in the Carolinas and midwest schools in Ohio and Minnesota. We spoke to schools ranging in size. So some as many… Some as large as 25,000 students and others as few as 4000 students. And finally, we spoke to a handful of schools with sizeable racial diversity, with one school having 20% Black student population and another having as large as 60% Latinx student population.

0:06:34.7 TZ: So now that we’ve understood a little bit about the context in which we’re working, I’d love to just dive into what did we learn in our conversations with the presidents? So Kayla, I’d love to start with you. Could you lead us through a couple of the biggest takeaways that you had from your conversations with the community college presidents?

0:06:51.2 KL: Yeah, absolutely. So what we heard most often in our conversations with community college presidents was that wrap-around support and cohort programs can really help retain and support marginalized student populations. Now, when we say wrap-around, what we really mean is holistic support for these students. And that can look like tutoring support, mental health counseling, financial aid assistance, or even child and family care. Essentially, it’s ensuring that the student’s full range of needs are met. Now, for cohort programs, what we mean is a group of students that are treated as a collective. These students don’t have to be in the same grade or even taking the same classes. What they’re doing is they’re supporting each other socially, academically and personally. We’ve identified cohort programs as being a particularly effective support system for Black and Latino men because they can help increase the students’ sense of belonging on predominantly White institutions and campuses, and they can provide a space where these students are free from judgment, misconceptions and really allow these students to be their complete selves around like-minded individuals.

0:08:08.7 KL: One thing that we’ve noticed, academically, that can help these students are stackable credentials and also actually learn and earn opportunities. So we know that one of the biggest reasons for student attrition, which is dropouts, is financial instability. Students can start to feel like their time is better spent working and making money rather than in the classroom. So we heard that one of the best ways to mitigate these feelings is through learn and earn opportunities. These can look like paid apprenticeships and internships where students are matched based on their interests and current coursework. They also help to minimize students feeling like they’re taking classes that don’t propel them towards a degree or courses that can start to feel like dead ends. Now, for stackable credentials, they’re basically ways students can be flexible with their course work while still earning credits towards a certificate or a degree. These allow students to quickly gain knowledge in a course area, level up their current field or find a higher-paying job, and they continue to complete credits towards their associate’s degree at the same time.

0:09:24.2 JD: And I’ll check up in here and add three additional takeaways from our conversations with presidents, the first being the importance of community partners. So the pandemic restricted many budgets and many community college presidents called out an alternative approach to address that, which was collaborating with community organizations, particularly, to fill in the gap of career prep and mentorship initiatives that stalled or were ultimately cut during the pandemic. We had a president talk about a collaboration with local Chamber of Commerce and an economic development group that created a $300,000 mentorship program. So the program connected, white-collar professionals with Black and Latino male students. And we know that towards the end of that student’s academic journey, those professional mentorship opportunities are crucial on-ramps to professional careers. Another president mentioned the benefit of outsourcing mentorship to local community organizations that serve Black men. So similar to My Brother’s Keeper or 100 Black Men local chapters, this organization connected students with community leaders that ultimately led to improved retention and graduation rates.

0:10:44.1 JD: The second takeaway I’ll touch on is the importance of the high school to community college pipeline. One president stressed the importance of expanding outreach to high school students to promote dual enrollment opportunities. And those dual enrollment opportunities are when high schoolers are dually enrolled in high school and community college earning credit in both spaces. This president talked about the significance of the pipeline from the local high schools in his region to his community college. He highlighted that his institution’s dual enrollment program attracted a significant number of Black and Latino boys.

0:11:23.3 JD: Another thing to note here is that families benefit in significant ways too. The Early College Dual Enrollment Program that I just referenced comes at no cost to families, which is an important cost saver in this current climate of inflation. The final takeaway I’ll mention is related to diversifying faculty and staff. Just about all the presidents that we spoke to agreed that the racial-ethnic make-up of faculty and staff isn’t good enough. Presidents are cognizant that the presence of faculty and staff of color can improve sense of belonging for Black and Latino men. One community college leader shared that hiring diverse faculty and staff can’t stop at an inclusive job ad or a candidate diversity statement. Hiring committees must also be diverse. This President stressed that departments with homogenous faculty needs to bring in members from other campus departments to increase racial and ethnic diversity.

0:12:27.0 JD: So whether it’s an application or an interview phase, every step of the hiring process should have a bias fail-safe to widen the pipeline for faculty and staff of color. The last point I’ll share here is two-year leaders were unanimous about hiring diversity being only one side of the coin. Equally as critical, are the efforts to retain faculty of color, so it’s important to think about monitoring service workload, which is a notable one because we know that faculty and staff of color end up doing more service than their peers. And finally the other retention piece to think about is not being as dependent on student evaluations when assessing professors, because that’s an easy way for bias to enter into the equation.

0:13:16.5 TZ: I wanna thank you both so much for that. And what I’m hearing us say is a lot of emphasis on the integration of wrap around services, collaboration, mentorship, and really emphasizing that students need to see themselves reflected in the campus community in order to feel like you belong in that community, so thank you. And I did wanna ask, and maybe Kayla we’ll start with you, if you had five minutes with a community college leader, what advice or counsel would you offer on how to make tangible measurable progress on these areas and how exactly should school leaders be measuring their impact?

0:13:50.9 KL: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think one thing that’s very important to address here is that Black and Latino men are more likely to be placed in remedial classes that don’t count towards their degrees, and typically have a stigma of being for students who are just less intelligent than everybody else, and eventually that will lead to student attrition. So if community colleges can adopt a co-requisite model where students are placed in a remedial class that doesn’t count towards their degree, but also placed into a course that will count towards their degree, this will allow students to earn a course credit and essentially provide a safety net for supporting these students that kind of act like additional tutoring.

0:14:38.5 KL: I would say that my second piece of advice is to chart out pathways towards degree completion for these students. Show them what courses count towards what degrees, and just make it clear that these classes aren’t dead ends, and that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the day, I think that motivation really helps with persistence, and being able to check off a completed class on a defined pathway towards a degree can really help keep students enrolled. Now, I’ll say that the best way to measure this is likely looking at graduation and retention rates. Are they increasing, are students sticking around, are they going on towards four-year institutions and graduate degrees? Just seeing if they’re staying in the system.

0:15:23.3 JD: Yeah, and I’ll jump into here and say that I think it’s important to regularly survey students to get a pulse of campus services, campus climate, conducting focus groups to get really in the weeds of that detail of what’s working and what’s not working. Just going out and talking to students is really important as well. We had a community college president talk about the importance of engaging our students that way, having open office hours or just walking and talking with students on campus, and all that feedback should be critical in driving change on campus. It’s important for leaders to be proactive. I think the second piece of advice I would say is think about the resources at your disposal. So some institutions may have the funds to bring on stakeholders that can really address retention and graduation rates for Black men or men of color specifically, but other institutions may have tighter budgets where they may need to outsource to other community partners, so that Black and Latino males can have those critical mentors. I’m thinking about some of those community partnerships that are professional organizations that can think about those students’ pathways beyond their community college experience.

0:16:50.6 JD: So I think it’s important to understand your community college profile and think about what capacity that you have in order to support your students.

0:17:00.8 TZ: Thank you both for that. And that’s all I think really actionable and clear advice. And one thing too, we’ve obviously uncovered that this topic is really important, and I’d love to hear from both of you your thoughts or what you’ve heard from the presidents about what are the consequences potentially of inaction on this topic and what could it mean for Black and Latino men. So maybe, Kayla we’ll start with you.

0:17:25.5 KL: Yeah, so I think that the consequences of not acting can kind of snowball. I think firstly, perpetuating a system that seems to be ineffective can often result in minoritized populations taking out massive student loans for degrees that they never actually end up completing which just perpetuates socio-economic issues for these populations in many ways. And then it’s also bad for community colleges in general and their presidents because they will likely see an increased reduction in student persistence and enrollment, and that’s just negative all around.

0:18:10.8 JD: Yeah, and I also would add here that I think Black and Latino men, if you aren’t providing adequate services, supports, they’re ultimately just gonna feel isolated. They’re not gonna feel a sense of belonging in community college spaces. And I think when we’re talking about the crisis of men and enrollment drops, I think it’s easy for those students to just not see the value out of higher ed in general, and not feel the importance of continuing. So I think it’s important for, as I mentioned before when we were talking about actionable advice to really get the pulse of your students and understand what’s working, what’s not working, so that you can make the campus experience for Black and Latino men much better.

0:19:00.4 TZ: And this is obviously a massive topic and something that’s unraveled, not over just the course of the pandemic but over a number of years. I’d like to understand from both of you, if you were with a college right now, and they asked, where do we start? What can I do on day one? What’s the first potential step, if I wanted to undertake some of the initiatives or strategies that we’ve discussed today? What would you tell them is that first step? And Kayla, maybe we can start with you.

0:19:28.0 KL: Yeah, absolutely, I think that’s a great question. And I think it also touches on something that Josh has gotten at a couple of times, which is understanding what students are feeling, understanding why they feel disconnected to the institution, and what would keep them on campus and persisting. One thing we heard from a partner is that schools can adopt all these different programs and initiatives, but if the students don’t feel as if they’re helpful, they’re not gonna persist anyway, which ends up being a waste of time and money for the institution. So I think it’s important to really understand where the students are coming from, why they feel disconnected to the campus. These students are gonna be commuters, so they might not feel as if spending all their time on campus is beneficial for them. They might wanna spend their time at home or somewhere else. So really understanding the student perspective, I think is critical before implementing any strategies.

0:20:29.3 TZ: I know a strategy that I’ve seen implemented as well as really being intentional about identifying a task force or a group of people that truly owns these initiatives. And this is obviously the entire college’s responsibility and hinges on the culture of the entire institution, but really identifying 10 people, 15 people, where this is very core to what they execute on campus, and that they’re accountable for the outputs and for the impact that these policies, procedures, and strategies have to make sure that institutions have that sense of accountability of, I really am moving the dial for my students, both from the qualitative experience that they’re having, that sense of belonging, that sense that I matter here, and also sort of that quantitative perspective to go back to some of Kayla’s notes about retention rates, persistence rates, graduation rates are all things that we can leverage to kind of get a glimpse into where are we doing well and where are there opportunities to improve?

0:21:33.4 TZ: And I know we could probably talk about this all day, and I know we’ll have many other conversations about this, but I think that brings us to the end of our time. So I wanna thank you both for joining me today. And I also wanna mention that Kayla and Josh have co-written a blog post summarizing a lot of what we’ve talked about today, including their interactions with those community college presidents. We’ll make sure to link that in the show notes. And Josh and Kayla, I wanna thank you so much for joining me today on Office Hours of EAB.

0:22:03.4 KL: Yeah, thank you so much. I really appreciated the opportunity to speak with you guys about this.

0:22:08.9 JD: Yep, thanks for having us. Really enjoyed this.


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