Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Researchers focus on men of color in California community colleges

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s declaration of the challenge of helping young men of color  succeed as a “moral issue for the country,” Cuyamaca College recently held a workshop led by two San Diego State University professors  highlighting the issue’s relevance to community colleges.

Frank Harris III and J. Luke Wood are faculty members in SDSU’s College of Education, co-directing the Minority Male Community College Collaborative, a program affiliated with SDSU’s doctoral program in Community College Leadership. The workshop was part of Cuyamaca College’s Diversity Dialogues, a semester-long series of free workshops focusing on a variety of diversity awareness and social justice topics.

The collaborative partners with colleges across the United States, providing the data so that decisions can be made to serve students of color effectively and equitably. Included in the Cuyamaca workshop were recommendations they presented last October to Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who convened the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color in California.

            “Much of the research on these men indicates that disparate outcomes between men of color, in comparison to their female and white counterparts, are a result of systemic and structural challenges that must be addressed through federal and state policy interventions,” Harris said.

            He added that the president’s recent unveiling of a privately funded $200 million initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper” has great relevance to community colleges because campuses like Cuyamaca are the entryway for a vast percentage of young men of color pursuing higher education.

            “The president talked about how, across the board, young men of color are also always at the bottom, in terms of graduation from high school and college, and on the top when it comes to engagement in the criminal justice system,” Harris said. “This has real moral and economic implications – a real significance – for our country.”

            In California, 81to 82 percent of all Latino and black male students enrolled in public postsecondary education are enrolled in community colleges. And while community colleges serve as a primary entry into higher education, access is not always synonymous with success.

            For example, 58 percent of black men who enrolled in credit courses during spring 2013 passed those courses with a grade of C or better. Among white males, that number was 74.6 percent; among the general male population, 70 percent. About 38 percent of blacks and Hispanics earned community college degrees or certificates or were eligible to transfer to a four-year university, compared to 65 percent of Asians, the group with the highest rate.

            Among the changes that Harris and Wood are recommending:Setting up an early alert system at community colleges that would allow educators to identify and to intervene when patterns of concern arise early in the semester that can lead to underachievement.

·         Redirect resources invested in corrections to postsecondary education. While California invests about $ 9 billion in corrections and rehabilitation each year, only $474 million is invested annually in the state’s community colleges.

·         Reduce funding inequities in the state’s postsecondary institutions so that institutions that serve high proportions of students of color – particularly community colleges -- receive adequate resources.

·         Create a statewide educational initiative for men of color in which the state partners with private entities to improve the lives and outcomes of boys and men of color.

·         Create programs to reclaim “near completers” – those who have earned a substantial proportion of college units but have not completed their degrees.

·         Ensure that men of color are equitably represented among students who transfer to California state universities.


Both Cuyamaca College and Grossmont College, its sister college in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, are taking numerous steps to assist students of color attending the colleges. Faculty, students and administrators from Cuyamaca College recently attended a conference in Los Angeles held to find ways to help build pathways to student success for African-American male students. Both colleges have programs that assist students with counseling, orientation, and tutoring. Grossmont College has a program called Umoja designed to support the persistence and retention of African-American students in their education.

“Providing quality higher education to everyone who seeks it is the cornerstone of community colleges,” said Cuyamaca College President Mark J. Zacovic. “Our goal here is to take that a step further and provide the support needed to ensure students with challenges and disadvantages obtain success equal to their peers. Frank discussions at workshops such as the Diversity Dialogues are critical to understanding complex issues.”

Harris noted the complexity of the underlying issue of why young men of color are not achieving to the levels of their peers, saying it’s easy to dismiss the problem as related to socioeconomic disparities. Surveys that he and Wood have conducted show that students of color still report encountering racial prejudice and stereotypes and of being ignored by faculty, staff and administrators. Other factors come into play, such as the fear of being viewed as academically inferior, and a reluctance to seek help for academic, personal or financial problems because these issues conflict with their perceptions of manhood.

“People ask, ‘What the heck is wrong with these guys – why aren’t they doing what it takes for them to be successful in college?’” Harris said. “Some people say, ‘well, it’s not our fault – these students come from single-parent homes, or families that don’t value education.’ As educators, we have to assume the greater responsibilities for these outcomes.”

An African-American whose parents were both incarcerated by the time he reached age 9, Harris said he is the classic case of someone who could have easily slipped through the system, had it not been for caring educators.

“Where would I be today if people just threw up their hands and said, ‘there’s nothing more we can do?’” he said.

The next Diversity Dialogues workshop is set for 12:30-1:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, when University of San Diego instructor Grace Bagunu presents “Leader vs. Leadership,” in Room I-207 in the student center. The workshop is free and open to the public.