Dr. Daniel Jean often recounts with sadness the story of Robert Daniel Cuadra, an 18-year-old honor student from Paterson, New Jersey, who was planning to embark on a promising college career at Montclair State University in the summer of 2022.
But Cuadra would never actually enroll at the public research university just a few miles from his home. Five months before he was set to graduate from high school, the Puerto Rican youngster fell victim to gun violence, senselessly murdered while unloading groceries outside of his home.
“The violence and anti-intellectual culture permeating our urban centers must stop,” an angry Jean wrote in an op-ed that appeared in a local New Jersey newspaper shortly after Cuadra’s death. “Access to high-quality higher education is perhaps the strongest path towards reversing the poisonous culture, but today, the success of males in college lags behind their female counterparts-– with ‘cis’ and ‘identified’ Black and Hispanic/LatinX male outcomes the most concerning.”
To address this problem, Jean — who is the assistant provost for special programs at Montclair — has been helping to lead the charge to increase male enrollment at the university, all the while forging collaborative partnerships with the surrounding community.
Responding to a crisis
The charge from Dr. Junius J. Gonzales, Montclair’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, was clear. In October 2022, he commissioned a university-wide task force to examine the following:
· (Cis/identified) male scholar enrollment cycle from prospects to alumni with a focus on Black and Hispanic/LatinX males.
· Current and future partnerships related to corporate/community engagement, resource allocations, and the development of enrollment and post-graduation talent pipelines.
· Sustainable recruitment and retention programs/plans for prospective/current scholars.
· Programming to include a nationwide collective of educators, administrators, and thought leaders.
“We did a deep dive on men of all backgrounds at the university, and we found that although our numbers at the university exceeded our counterparts, our Black and Latino males had the lowest outcomes as it relates to year-to-year retention and overall, 4- to 6-year graduation rates,” recalls Jean. “We outlined specific recommendations for the university to explore as it relates to improving overall outcomes and talent pipelines for Black and Latino males, and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot over the course of less than two years.”
Simply increasing the number of men of color wasn’t the ultimate goal, says Dr. Carolina E. Gonzalez, associate dean for student success in the College for Education and Engaged Learning and a professor of education at Montclair. “We’re concerned about their lived experiences while they’re here and beyond.”
The results of their efforts have already been impressive with university officials presenting their model at major conferences and academic meetings like the Tri-State Consortium of Opportunity Programs and the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE).
Montclair isn’t the only institution focused on men of color — there are dozens of initiatives in place across the country, but these programs are increasingly facing scrutiny particularly in states like Florida and Texas with conservative governors.
Montclair’s full-throated commitment to prioritizing the plight of men of color has won the institution wide-scale praise from nearby communities including Paterson, where it will launch the “One Square Mile” initiative in partnership with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. The program centers around transforming Paterson’s Eastside High School into a university-assisted community center that provides academic programming, meals, healthcare, and other tailored services for students and families within a coordinated one square-mile area.
And university officials say that they are just getting started.
What emerged from the taskforce planning was the Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance (MEGA), an ambitious wrap-around initiative designed to strengthen the high school-to-college pipeline and to provide a platform for current male college students of color to engage with each other, faculty, and staff.
“Men, particularly from underserved backgrounds, are entering college and being retained at rates that are simply unacceptable,” says Gonzales, who has championed the effort alongside Montclair’s president, Dr. Jonathan GS Koppell. “They are critical for communities to thrive, and it is imperative that we do all we can as institutions to foster not only their academic and economic stability but their advancement in these areas as well.”
The overall enrollment nationwide at Title IV institutions (schools that process federal financial aid) is 8% Hispanic males and 5% Black males. The four-year graduation rate for females is at 51% with males at 41%; for Hispanic males, the rate is just 32% and 21% for Black males. The six-year graduation rate continues to amplify the gaps with females at 67% and males at 60%; the rate for Hispanic males is 54% and 39% for Black males.
Last year, MEGA kicked off its inaugural national symposium, bringing hundreds of education leaders to Montclair for a daylong convening to explore the issue. Dr. Terrell L. Strayhorn, who is known for his research on belonging, delivered the keynote address. At the symposium, there was a professional track and a track for high school and college scholars, which included, for instance, a barbershop model that provided free haircuts to the youngsters.
“We focused on everything from defining manhood to maximizing financial aid awards, to career development and leadership,” says Jean.
This year’s theme for the symposium is “Triumph Over Trauma” and will take place March 8. Like last year, college officials will engage with Black and Latino young men statewide targeting nearby high schools in Passaic, Essex, and Hudson counties.
“We’re focusing on mental health for our scholars,” says Jean, adding that over 300 high school students are scheduled to attend.
This is all part of the university’s strategic plan to create and nurture key partnerships and memorandums of understanding for the implementation of pipeline programs and “the Future College Graduate Institute,” a dual enrollment program at 10 high schools in Newark, New Jersey, where students who complete a curricular and co-curricular path are automatically offered enrollment into Montclair State University.
“Now we have a playbook that we’ve developed to shop to other districts,” says Jean, who adds that recruiting the students into the university that enrolls approximately 23,000 students is just the first step. Retaining them and ensuring that they graduate is equally important.
Later this spring, university leaders are looking to launch a study that will help to identify levels of college awareness and key drivers of college selection among a diverse sample of 300 high school male scholars. This effort will help to inform strategies for broadening college opportunities. University officials point out that the study will provide insights into current levels of college awareness among high school scholars and reveal how their perceptions of college are shaped. Findings, they say, can be used to develop more equitable outreach and communication strategies to broaden college opportunity.
“I feel very hopeful,” says Gonzalez, who notes that the buy-in from academic colleges, student services, and other departments across campus has pushed the initiative forward. “I saw that commitment in the beginning, and I see it continue to the present day. We want to make Montclair State a place where all students thrive, particularly paying attention to students of color.”
All this work is part of the university’s attempt to ensure that its mission remains focused on the public good. As other states struggle to stave off attacks to diversity in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling to outlaw affirmative action, Montclair has not changed course.
“The president made it very clear that the ruling will not change our commitment to supporting underrepresented and disenfranchised students,” Jean says.
A commitment to the work
It’s that kind of commitment to equity issues that has inspired Jean, who has been at the university since 2011. In 2020, Jean moved to the office of the provost, where his work has focused primarily on limited income and first-generation students.
“That’s my passion,” says Jean, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest of five children born to Haitian immigrants. Even though he attended a gifted and talented high school, he says he felt unprepared when he enrolled as a first-year student at Ramapo College of New Jersey. But he pressed on, eventually earning a master’s degree from Montclair and a doctorate from Seton Hall University.
“I retained a passion for this work because of some of the mentors that I met during my undergraduate experience, who saw things in me that I didn’t even see in myself,” says Jean, adding that the mentoring he received has inspired him to help others along the way.
Jean’s advocacy has not gone unnoticed. He developed a popular Facebook group, titled PhinisheD/FinishEdD #WhoGotNext, where thousands of doctoral students encourage each other to complete their degrees and then publicly celebrate each other once the degrees are conferred.
“The mentorship is extremely important to me, in terms of really pushing this kind of narrative of folks understanding that once they earn their terminal degrees, they have to send the elevator back down,” he says.
Jean says he initially thought he wanted to become a teacher, but he quickly realized that, while he wanted to educate and empower, he wanted to do so in a variety of ways.
“I didn’t want to deal with the confines of a classroom,” he says, adding that the work within higher education has allowed him to have a greater impact.
The time to align the work to the school’s mission is especially timely in the wake of the school’s recent merger with Bloomfield College — the only Predominantly Black Institution (PBI) in the Garden State.
“We are on a quest to identify ways in which we could sustain partnerships with our local communities near and far,” says Gonzalez. “We want to develop pipelines and to help socialize the importance and value of college education and look at how Montclair is measuring up to that challenge.”
It’s hard work for sure, says Koppell, the school’s president. But he says the institution is up to the challenge.
“There is a significant problem that demands a solution,” says Koppell. “It requires us to carefully examine our institutions — and the entire educational system — to learn how we are contributing to those outcomes. Do all students feel welcomed and supported?
For the year upcoming, Koppell says, the university remains laser-focused on eliminating differential outcomes for different populations at Montclair.
“As proud as we are to be a leader on this front,” he says, “we will continue to self-examine and pivot as necessary to put students at the center and support them throughout their educational careers.”