By J. Luke Wood, Associate Professor, San Diego State University and Frank Harris III, Professor, San Diego State University
Community colleges serve as the primary pathway into public postsecondary education for many underserved populations. In comparison to their four-year institutions, community colleges serve 64 to 65% of all Black and Latino college men (NPSAS, 2012). While these institutions have a recognized reputation for providing access to college, this access has not translated into success. Recent data indicate that only 24% of community college students will complete their goals by earning a certificate, degree, or transferring to a four-year college. For some student populations, particularly Black and Latino men, their success at these institutions is even lower, at 16 to 17% (BPS, 2014).
As scholars who are focused on the success of underserved students, particularly men of color, our research has identified a number of key factors that influence Black and Latino male success in college. In recent years, we have enjoyed the privilege of sharing our findings on these factors with practitioner colleagues who lead and teach in community colleges. Almost invariably, at least one audience member asks us to identify the most important set of practices that they can use to support students. Most commonly, the question is phrased liked, “If you could tell us a few of the most important things we can do to better educate Black and Latino men, what would that be?”
Typically, we are reluctant to respond to this question, as doing so could easily reduce the importance of a more expansive range of interventions, such as culturally relevant teaching, collaborative learning, intrusive practices, holding high expectations for student performance and understanding racial microaggressions. Invariably, we find that college educators are looking for a silver bullet to resolve the challenges facing their students, in reality, a silver bullet does not exist. Instead, a web of strategies and supports that influence how educators think about, engage, and teach students are needed to make meaningful strides that advance student success.
That being said, our research has regularly identified three recurrent practices that are critical to student success for Black and Latino men in community colleges. Interestingly, these practices deal less with in-class instruction and more to do with setting a foundation for a holistic teaching and learning environment. As articulated in Wood, Harris III and White (2015) these practices include:
Some men of color report that when faculty members see them on campus, they pretend to be on their phones, walk the other direction, or put their heads down to avoid interacting with them
Welcoming Engagement - Outside of Class
Our research has shown that out-of-class interactions with faculty are as important (if not more important) than interactions that occur in class. In fact, data indicate that 64% of Black men who regularly interact with faculty outside of class will complete their goals at the community college in comparison to only 24% of those who never interact with their faculty (BPS, 2009). Outside of class interactions are key for student success because that is where relationships are formed between faculty and students. Unfortunately, some men of color report that when faculty members see them on campus, they pretend to be on their phones, walk the other direction, or put their heads down to avoid interacting with them. As a result, one of the most powerful strategies a faculty can employ is to be proactive in engaging students outside of class. This refers to the simple practices, smiling, saying hello, asking students how they are doing, and striking up academic and non-academic conversations.
In society, men of color are taught by the media and some educators that school is not for them. Instead, repeatedly emphasized are other non-academic pathways (e.g., sports, music, comedy). As a result, it is not uncommon for men of color to have few, if any, experiences where educators invested time in them and their academic goals. Given this, receiving positive messages from faculty and staff that encourage their efforts, affirm their belonging in college, and acknowledge their abilities is essential for student success. Unfortunately, our research shows that nearly a third of Black and Latino men do not receive these messages from faculty that validate their abilities, work ethic, and place in college. This is challenging given that validating messages from faculty are routinely among the most important factors influencing success for men of color. And, these messages lessen the detrimental effect that stressful life events and life pressures can have on students. As such, it is essential that faculty and staff be intentional about validating students and recognize that their encouragement of students matters.
Relationships are the foundational precondition to effective teaching and learning. Stated differently, it does not matter how good one teaches, how well their syllabus is put together, how carefully tailored their lectures, or how knowledgeable they are in their discipline, if they do not have a relationship with men of color they will not be successful. Men of color often have K-12 and college experiences that are less than desirable. These experiences can be characterized by low expectations from educators who often perceive them as academically inferior. Such experiences can engender an oppositional perspective and attitude towards schooling. Conversely, enhanced relationships create opportunities for men to seek out help from educators, resolve academic concerns, and gain a greater confidence in their abilities. At a bare minimum, faculty should strive to know a student’s name and at least one meaningful fact about them, their goals, or their personal lives. Then, when interacting with students, they should refer to them by name and use the information they know to build a relationship with them.
In tandem, welcoming engagement, validating practices, and personal relationships can foster environments where Black and Latino men can learn and grow in college. To learn more about practices that are effective in educating college men of color, see Teaching Men of Color in the Community College and Supporting Men of Color in the Community College.
BPS (2009). Cumulative retention and attainment at first institution by ‘talk with faculty outside of class’, for sector of first institution - 10 categories 2011-12 (public 2-year) and gender (male) and transfer (first): destination institution type 2014. Washington, DC: Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.
BPS (2014). Cumulative retention and attainment at first institution through 2013-14 by race/ethnicity (with multiple), for sector of first institution - 10 categories 2011-12 (public 2-year) and gender (male) and transfer (first): destination institution type 2014. Washington, DC: Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.
NPSAS (2012). NPSAS institution sector (4 with multiple) by race/ethnicity (with multiple), TRIO program eligibility criteria and TRIO program eligibility criteria. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.
Wood, J. L., Harris III, F., & White, K. (2015). Teaching men of color in the community college: A guidebook. San Diego, CA: Lawndale Hill.