When Derrick Greenwade enrolled at The Ohio State University in the fall of 1997, statistics suggested that he, as a Black male, had slightly more than a 50 percent chance of ever receiving a degree. Since Greenwade’s graduation in 2002, the first-year success rates for Black males have shot up. With the help of targeted programs and key research, OSU is solving the first-year, Black male attrition equation.
In 2001, only 68.6 percent of first-year African-American male students returned to OSU for their second year; seven years later, more than 91 percent of Black male freshmen returned for their sophomore year. For the second consecutive year, that figure exceeds the sophomore retention rate for Black women.
Greenwade, a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital & Nursing Facility in New York City, is heartened by the improvements his alma mater has implemented to keep young Black males engaged and present on campus. “When I was a student, the mentorship process wasn’t good,” he says. “You didn’t have another brother saying, ‘Come follow me. I will lead you.’ You didn’t have anybody looking after you, and it was difficult trying to find someone.”
Data show that Black male students often feel isolated, marginalized and invisible on predominantly White campuses. Dr. Mac Stewart, the chief diversity officer and vice provost for minority affairs at OSU, says that was the reality officials at the university discovered with the Black men on campus. “We had to do something to address this issue,” he says. “We first started with a focus group of Black male students. They made some suggestions.”
In 2005, OSU opened the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male to facilitate personal growth, academic achievement and professional leadership through specialized programs that positively impact Black male undergraduate students.
OSU officials credit the Bell Center and its targeted Black male programming for the increase in first-year retention.
Today, the center provides programming that aims to keep the university’s Black men engaged on campus. These programs include an early arrival freshman orientation program, a leadership roundtable series, mentorship programs and a mentoring event called Gathering of Men that matches students with Black faculty, staff and community members.
Like OSU, colleges and universities around the nation are grappling with the same question: how to get and keep Black male students. Black males, who already enroll in college at dismally low numbers, also have the highest attrition rate among both sexes and all racial groups in higher education. In 2005, Black men at top-tier institutions had a graduation rate of 36 percent, compared to 46 percent and 60 percent for Hispanic and White males, respectively, according to a recent National Black Male College Achievement study.
Today, traditionally White colleges and universities across the country are touting recent successes in Black male recruitment and retention. The turnaround has been so remarkable that, in some cases, the same outreach tools are now being adopted by community colleges to attract and retain Hispanic males.
Getting Them There First
Before institutions can tackle the problem of Black male attrition they must first address the initial problem of low enrollment.
Since the late 1990s, Black student enrollment at the University of Georgia, the state’s flagship university, has hovered between 5 percent and 6 percent, despite promises by the university’s administration to improve the school’s pursuit of Black students. In 1998, Blacks constituted 6.2 percent of the university’s enrollment. After significant dips in 2001 and 2003, the university rebounded, increasing its Black enrollment to nearly 6.8 percent in 2007. But the number of Black men remained disproportionately low.
The numbers took a dramatic turn in 2008, however. In the fall of that year, 104 Black males enrolled at the university, an 18 percent jump from fall 2007.
“The increase cannot be pinpointed to any one initiative,” says Dr. Mimi Sodhi, assistant provost of UGA’s Office of Institutional Diversity. “It is more a combination of university-wide partnership and collaboration in our outreach and recruitment efforts.”
UGA is part of a larger African-American Male Initiative launched by the University System of Georgia in 2002. When system officials found that Black male students were outnumbered by their female counterparts nearly 2-to-1, they developed the initiative to even out the ratio. Since the program’s inception, Black male enrollment has increased 24.5 percent throughout the system.
“Once they are on campus, there are many activities to embrace our African-American students, particularly our African-American males,” says Cheryl Dozier, UGA’s associate provost of institutional diversity.
In the past OSU had few programs aimed at nurturing Black male students. Today, however, the school’s retention efforts are built around intentional monitoring, says Dr. James L. Moore III, one of the nation’s leading experts on Black male achievement and the director of the Bell Center. “We do some pretty aggressive academic monitoring, or what we call intrusive advising. We are following up on students to ensure that they are successful on campus and in their careers. Students are less likely to drop the ball if they know that you will follow up.”
Lee College, a two-year college in Texas, began an African-American and Hispanic male initiative in 2007 called Achieving the Dream to improve the grade point averages of Black and Hispanic men in courses where large disparities existed. After one semester, grade point averages among Black men went from 2.2 to 2.6 in history and from 1.9 to 2.2 in math.
Achieving the Dream uses students who have earned a B or better in courses where disparities exist to serve as mentors. The student is paid a stipend to retake the course and serve as a role model for students who need help. Time is also allotted for tutoring and other activities outside of the classroom.
Last year, Jeremy Jones, director of Achieving the Dream and College Readiness, assembled a group of Black male students to discuss the efficacy of their Black male program. “They responded by saying, ‘Its programs, like the Rise to Leadership Speaker Series, that keep us on campus. They help us with self-drive and self-determination.’”
Initiatives and programs that foster high self-esteem among Black and Hispanic males will be among the most successful in stimulating their academic success, Jones says.
“I believe that Black and Hispanic males are faced with tremendous obstacles of self-esteem that are masked. Institutions around America are formulating male strategies to foster persistence in higher education more than ever,” says Jones. “If these programs are giving them hope and an inspiration to [achieve], they are successful to me.”
But at least one expert says adapting the strategy used with Black males and applying it to other ethnic groups may not necessarily work.
In the arena of retention, one size does not fit all, says Dr. Shaun Harper, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Borrowing a design from one campus and implementing it on another will not yield desirable outcomes for Black males. Trying to do the exact same kinds of things for Latino males would also be ineffective,” he says, adding that he is speaking from experience.
Harper, principal investigator of the “National Black Male College Achievement Study,” says because the challenges and realities that Black males face vary by region and by campus, “A better alternative is for institutions to establish a team of stakeholders across the campus who are concerned about the disparity and empower them to come up with context-specific kinds of programs and interventions.”
According to Harper’s research, 67.6 percent of Black male freshmen never complete their degrees. “Black men comprised only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled at American institutions of higher education in 2003, the exact same percentage as in 1976.”
Answers to the low enrollment and completion equation, Harper believes, lie largely in the research he has compiled. While many researchers are focused on the lack of role models, support and engagement for Black males on college campuses, Harper is currently working through approximately 4,500 pages of interview materials and data. He is writing both a major report and a book, which should yield strategies culled from the experiences of academically successful Black men.
Having spoken to Black men attending a wide range of institutions, Harper found that a severe lack of engagement among Black male students was an integral part of the attrition equation. “Most colleges and universities fail to assume sufficient institutional responsibility for engaging Black male students in educationally enriching experiences inside and outside of the classroom,” he says.
Extending a Hand
After high school, Derrick Burks was headed to Washington University in St. Louis to major in education. His plans changed after receiving a letter from Ohio State about the Bell Center. “Their main initiative is to get you in college and to help you stay in college,” Burks says, “Washington University didn’t have a similar program.”
One of the largest public institution’s in the nation, OSU is home to more than 50,000 students, but, now in his third year, Burks says he has never felt invisible. “Ohio State is a big school. The Bell Center makes it a little smaller. They have programs that put you in touch with other Black men and provide free homework help, mentoring and other resources.”
The summer before his freshman year, Burks participated in the Bell Center’s Early Arrival Program, a three-day program designed to give incoming Black males a head start on their experience as undergraduate students. Students learn about resources, meet faculty, staff, fellow students and alumni who are eager to assist in their success. Participants also attend faculty presentations, student panels and a tailgate luncheon prior to an OSU football game.
Burks says the program helped him meet other Black men and become acclimated to OSU’s culture. The Bell Center also introduced Burks and other students to a number of high-profile Black male role models, such as singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte and Harvard University law professor Charles Ogletree.
“When something gets hard, it’s real easy to give up. But when you go to the programs and you see people who’ve made it, that gives you the motivation not to quit,” Burks says.
Retention Is Not Rocket Science
“Retention is about being accessible. A student can walk into a variety of offices, the cultural center, multicultural services and programs, or the diversity office and talk to staff and peers who can understand and relate to their unique experiences
says Dozier at UGA, noting that peer-to-peer mentoring equips students with academic and social allies.
UGA offers programs like the Black Male Leadership Society, a student initiated group that offers faculty-to-student mentoring and introduces students to high-profile, African-American scholars. Students can also find peer-to-peer support services in UGA’s African American Cultural Center.
When cultivating an environment of academic success for Black males, institutions should provide a diverse group of faculty and staff through mentoring, academic support, a culturally based curriculum and co-curricular activities, says Tim Culver, a retention consultant for Noel-Levitz, an admissions consulting group.
“Retention isn’t rocket science. It’s about making connections to students. Early entrance bridge programs, community building and mentorship are tried and true retention strategies that are used to retain all students,” Culver says. “I’m a big fan of required engagement. Administrators can’t wait for students to come to them. They have to go after them.”
After more than 30 years of working in the field, OSU’s Stewart says he understands that today’s Black male students need the same support and role models that he found at his undergraduate alma mater, historically Black Morehouse College.
In fact, a program offered by the Office of Minority Affairs titled the Gathering of Men is one Stewart copied from a Morehouse model. Gathering of Men is usually held twice per academic year on campus. A keynote speaker delivers a message related to issues that Black male college students experience. All the Black male students, staff and faculty are invited to attend the gathering.
Stewart says the event provides an opportunity for students to network with each other and Black faculty and staff. The relationships forged with faculty and staff provides students with on-going support in the areas of personal, professional and leadership development. The gathering is primarily a social activity, but Stewart firmly believes that it plays an important role for new students looking for role models and mentors. “The men see that they are not alone,” he says. “They see that we are here for them and that we are expecting them to succeed.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com