Introduction of the topic
When students enter college for the first time, most, if not all, plan to graduate with a degree. However, statistics paint a much different picture. On average, community colleges graduate students at a rate of less than 30%. An even grimmer picture is that of minority students, particularly Black males, who graduate, on average, at less than 10% with some institutions seeing numbers well below that. The question is what can be done about this gap in achievement in order to raise this cohort’s numbers to those of their peers. Looking at the history of community colleges, the state of K-12 schools in urban districts and characteristics of Black male students coupled with the success of support programs put into place to change the reality of what is happening in colleges across the United States, can answer the pertinent question: what can be done to bridge the gap?
The search for resources began by using the Wilmington University Library databases. Using the advanced search feature, which uses WorldCat.org, references were found using the following search parameters:
Achievement gap + African American males
Achievement gap + Black males
Achievement gap + African American males + community college
Achievement gap + Black males + community college
I included only peer-reviewed articles as well as indicated that the article dates should fall between 2013-2018.
Using the databases available at Union County College, I used the same search parameters, but employed EBSCOhost as the search source.
Definition and background of achievement gap
In its simplest terms, achievement gap is the disparity in academic achievement between diverse groups of students, most commonly Black and Hispanic students in comparison to White students. When averaged, Black students regularly perform 4 years behind their White counterparts in both math and reading (Ford ; Moore, 2013). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) highlights this discrepancy with Black students performing below the average of their White peers consistently. Cowan-Pitre reports, “In 2013, the percentage of Black students in the 12th grade who were ‘below basic’ in mathematics was 62% compared to 25% of White students” (Cowan-Pitre, 2014, p. 211). The statistics for reading is comparable with an ever-widening gap seen in students as they navigate their K-12 careers.
While there are various reasons achievement gap exists, literature consistently agrees on few main causes. One of the first causes is experienced early in life, sometimes even within a child’s first year of attending school. Students in urban areas are faced with unprepared teachers, and limited resources, which, at times, might even include lack of basic necessities, such as books. In this case, opportunity gap is the problem even more so than achievement gap. Lack of opportunity and lack of even basic school supplies causes a cascading effect on students’ education beginning even at the lowest levels of elementary schools. Underachievement is found in students who are faced with social factors such as racism and negative stereotypes. Students who face educators who are programed to believe students of color are academically inferior and have low expectations of the abilities of said students are far less likely to be drive to succeed in school (Ford ; Moore, 2013). Seen as early in life as pre-school, stereotypical messages are received, in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle forms, from teachers to their Black male students. These messages include teachers’ feelings of deficient cognitive abilities and behavioral expectations. The messages received can cause self-confidence issues as well as a feeling of not belonging (Palmer, Wood, Dancy & Strayhorn, 2014).
Cultural influences, including family and social relationships, also play a significant role in the development of underachieving students. When students lack proper academic support as well as familial support there is a great chance these students will fall into the trap of seeing achievement as a dream that is unattainable. At the K-12 level, support peers who view academic success as a positive, mentors who encourage, and counselors who disseminate vital information regarding college are vital to student success (Welton & Martinez, 2013). Without these key components, success in higher education is more difficult, albeit not impossible.
The rigors of curriculum are significant when it comes to student success. However, curriculums are historically less vigorous at low-income, urban districts. Lowered expectations leads to less challenging academic content, which leads to under-educated students (Ford & Moore, 2013). Even when Black students present as being gifted, they are “underrepresented by almost 60% in gifted education” (Ford & Moore, 2013, p. 405). Further highlighting even students who would benefit from challenging material are not allowed access to it due to lack of opportunity or understanding advanced courses are even an option for them (Welton & Martinez, 2013). Students from certain racial and economic backgrounds are, at times, excluded from even gaining information about college-prep courses by gatekeepers, such as teachers, administration and counselors (Welton & Martinez, 2014).
Students who have access to middle or upper class schools are not immune to the repercussions of their race. It is noted White, middle-class parents take place in “opportunity hoarding” where they ensure access to academically rigorous courses and college-prep support services while excluding others from gaining equal access (Welton & Martinez, 2013).
Underqualified teachers with either lack of degree in the subject area they are teaching or lack of experience in education is another factor affecting the achievement gap between students. Many students in urban areas are taught by teachers who lack certification in the subject areas they are teaching; in addition, the teachers themselves lack not only subject matter experience but experience in general leaving students who require experienced, knowledge teachers at the mercy of a system that provides them with teachers with less than 5 years in the classroom (Palmer et al., 2014).
Community Colleges’ Challenges
With the promise of educating all Americans who have an interest in attaining a degree, community colleges face both challenges and unique opportunities not seen in four-year schools. Students often come unprepared or underprepared academically for the challenges of higher education. Classrooms are then filled with students of diverse backgrounds, intellect and academic readiness, creating a “a heterogeneous classroom environment that is made the more challenging by students who believe that community college is a step down from “real” college” (Marti, 2016, p. 3). Faculty members and administrators are tasked with ensuring the classroom experience are benefitting all students along with putting in place much-needed support services.
Historically community colleges also face issues when it comes to budget demands and lack of resources seen in the four-year schools, such as alumni support. Lack of financial security poses issues when it comes to enacting new programs to help students who require additional support to graduate. Marti (2016), “Community colleges are responsible for educating nearly 50 percent of today’s undergraduates however, the institutions historically receive about 27 percent of the total federal, state, and local revenue (p. 117). Community colleges are aware of the issues they face, especially when it comes to making meaningful impacts on minority graduation rates, but large-scale changes at the institution level requires funding.
With an overall increase in college enrollment across the United States, it is important to note a significant amount of Black students do not enter college after graduating from high school when compared to their White counterparts. Strayhorn reports, “Although 75% of White high school graduates enroll in college almost immediately following graduation, only 35-50% of African American high school graduates do” (Strayhorn, 2011, p. 437). Many African American males who do enroll in college begin their college career at community colleges. However, they continue to have the lowest graduation rates when compared to other races, and even within their own race when looked at Black female graduation rates. Statiscally, only 42% of Black males who enter community college will graduate within 3 years (Wood & Palmer, 2013). Other statistics paint an even grimmer picture with retention rates of 10% or even lower (Strayhorn, 2011). However, prior research indicates the enactment of programs catered to Black males and implementation of certain procedures can increase success among this cohort.
Research shows an integral part of student success is support from faculty and a feeling that faculty/staff care about student achievement and other pertinent issues. Palmer et al., (2014) suggest “Black men in community colleges perceive faculty as unsupportive and not invested in their success (p. 66). In a study by Sandoval-Lucero, Maes and Klingsmith (2014), regarding cultural capital and its relation to student success, an important finding indicates the number one reason students felt supported was positive faculty involvement. Putting into place programs which encourages faculty-student interaction, specifically among Black males and their instructors, could increase perceptions of faculty engagement thus increasing student satisfaction with their classroom experiences. However, Palmer, Wood, Dancy ; Strayhorn (2014) find within community colleges, black males tend to find faculty “to be unsupportive and apathetic towards their success” (p. 70). This highlights an issue that needs to be addressed. Professional development workshops should be put into place to make faculty, and staff, aware of students of color perceptions of them as well as offer means to properly engage with underserved students.
In reviewing studies related to this issues, student engagement is seen by many as one of the main ways to increase student retention. When students are engaged in school through athletics, clubs and activities, they build community and with this a feeling of belonging to something. They no longer feel as if they are outsiders looking in who can drop-out and disappear without anyone noticing they are gone. Joining student clubs and organizations, including athletic teams, are one way students can become invested in college. Along with becoming invested in the college, organizations encourage peer interactions. These type of bonds “facilitate academic development, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and cultural awareness for Black men in particular” (p. 71). All these skills are essential to college success and an imperative part of forging interaction between students of different backgrounds and cultures.
It is imperative to look at the characteristics of these students to understand some of the hindrances to their success. Black students are more likely to come from single-parent households where there is not a significant emphasis placed on the importance of education.
Support programs to close the gap.
Seeing the need for increased college access for low-income students, TRIO programs were enacted by Congress in the 1960s beginning with just 3 programs. Today, though in danger because of cuts in education, TRIO consists of 5 programs, UpWard Bound and Student Support Services (Palmer et al., 2014). Research shows TRIO programs have played an important role in student success since its inception. However, there is less research when it comes to direct impacts on Black males.
One of the most important support programs are Black Male Initiative (BMI) programs. Two
successful programs in place are Brother2Brother (B2B) and Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB). Both programs focus on the need to increase Black males retention and graduation rates (Brooms, 2018). BMI programs “normalize the importance of Black men relying not only on each other for support, but also the larger campus system” (Palmer et al., 2014, p. 74). Programs, such as Brother2Brother, take the stigma away from reaching out for help as well as assisting Black males to view support as an advantage and not a hindrance. Brooms (2018) found that half of surveyed students viewed the BMI community as a place they felt “affirmed, welcomed and valued” (p.146). The community becomes a second home where Black males are able to find a place of their own allowing them to integrate into college life and an increased sense of who they are as both a person and as a Black man. Mentorship is a vital component of these programs. Mentors are responsible for modeling expected behaviors, introducing students to campus resources and helping them gain access to outside resources, such as internships, as needed (Palmer et al., 2014).
In addition to the sociocultural capital garnered, programs such as this offer increased academic support through coaching sessions as well as study groups. Research indicates the use of workshops, including goal-setting, financial information, and resume writing, provide students with a place to increase their knowledge outside of the classroom (Brooms, 2018).
Having attainable goals and a plan for the future are assets when it comes to college success. A study done by Wood and Palmer looked at the goals at Black males in community colleges. The findings indicate there are common goals among the cohort including higher goal-setting in regards to extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic motivation (Welton ; Martinez, 2013). Using the information from this study can assist advisors to help students see the value of education and how it will increase their personal wealth in the future. Even more than the goal of making money, Black males are much more likely to want to be community leaders. Educators can work with students to allow them to see community college is “a good training ground for realizing these goals” (Welton ; Martinez, 2013, p. 241). Through the use of leadership opportunities and academic clubs, students can be given the opportunity to hone those particular skills.
Many resources comment on the need for research to be conducted on the community college level. There are resources, both books and journal articles, written on the topic of achievement gap at the K-12 level as well as studies done on the campuses of four-year universities. There is a significant gap when it comes to focusing on Black males and their college experiences at community colleges. Palmer, Wood, Dancy ; Strayhorn (2014), “less than eight peer-reviewed studies were published on Black male community college students from 1971-2009” (p. 89). Clearly, this number has increased in the past nine years with an increased interest by scholars on this topic; however, there still remains a significant deficiency in the literature. Increased studies in this area will lead to increased understanding of the reasons Black males, statisically, fall beind their peers. With an increased understanding in this area, community colleges can put into place effective progtrams to meet the needs this cohort in the hopes of elevating graduation rates.