In fall 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the gradual disappearance of men from four-year colleges and universities (Belkin, 2021). This article reignited a national discussion about the decline in enrollment, retention, and graduation for men and how colleges should consider implementing a gendered affirmative action process to ensure gender equity in admissions offices to support young men and their college goals. This Wall Street Journal article received immediate response from researchers, pundits, and various stakeholders that the gender gap was, in fact, an old problem for colleges and universities. The gender gap in higher education is especially salient for men of color—that is, Black, Latino/x, Indigenous, Asian American, and Pacific Islander men—who for decades have been “vanishing” from higher education: only one in five men of color over the age of 24 holds a bachelor’s degree (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019; Sáenz & Ponjuan, 2009).
As a faculty member who has studied college access and success for boys and men of color for almost a decade, I can firmly state that colleges and universities have struggled to retain and support men of color to reach college degree completion. Many colleges and universities have developed a litany of programs that create ethnic and gender-affirming spaces; engage students in athletics; or broadly appeal to men, such as entrepreneurship, criminal justice, and information technology. These have resulted in subtle upticks in men’s interest but have not solved the retention or graduation problems for men of color specifically. The ideas presented here are drawn from a multiyear qualitative case study of men of color retention initiatives across five public state universities within one college system. For three years, my team of researchers interviewed over 170 students, faculty, staff, and administrators to understand the funding of men-of-color initiatives, programming available to students, staffing infrastructure, and other elements that helped make these initiatives effective and potentially replicable. We provided two online training and support for 115+ university faculty, staff, and administrators, focusing on the problems, challenges, and opportunities for support for men of color and then a deep dive into data, practice, and equity-driven policy design and redesign (Huerta & Dizon, 2021). My recommendations may be helpful to provosts, associate provosts, deans, department chairs, vice presidents of student affairs, and others concerned about the status and structure of options to support men of color and promote degree completion.
As we think about the life course of a new student, it is essential to examine the total number of men of color who applied, enrolled, persisted, and graduated. Each stage of the college experience has specific milestones, including participation in first-year or transfer orientation, summer bridge programs, and first-year experiences; persistence to the second semester; yearly financial aid renewal; academic program declarations; internships; and fieldwork obligations. As a team, it is essential to ask for and then examine the data to ensure ethnic and gender equity at each stage of the college process. For the five cases that I studied, the men-of-color initiatives were created by various campus actors, among them full-time faculty, vice presidents of student affairs, and mid-level student affairs professionals. It is also important to note that both men and women were central leaders in developing these initiatives. These individuals identified informal trends at their institutions that adversely affected men of color, and institutional data confirmed their intuition. For others, what internal and institutional factors are causing men of color at your institution to struggle at each step, and how can your institution provide individual or cohort support for students? This is a critical opportunity to foster authentic relationships and partnerships between student and academic affairs to create a support system for the men of color through a clear understanding of the institutional data to isolate the college barriers.
Now that you have a clear understanding of your data and the various institutional barriers for men of color, what intervention or support systems are currently available or needed to increase enrollment, persistence, or degree completion at your institution? Will initiatives be housed in student affairs, in individual academic colleges, or under the purview of the provost office? Which racial and ethnic groups need help? Given the broad racial, ethnic, and geographical diversity across institutions, it is essential to know your community context. If your institutional data signals that Latino/x and Southeast Asian men need the most support, how will your men-of-color efforts serve that population? As another example, if your institution is struggling to maintain first to second-year retention rates, how can it design (or redesign) its men-of-color initiatives with that specific cohort of students in mind? Do the re-enrollment gaps result from students’ financial aid strains, low academic performance or probation, or a lack of community support for men of color? Whether your institution moves forward with a campus-wide initiative or specific programming for men of color that is housed in student affairs, adequate support, investment, and planning are essential to a beneficial outcome. Campus-wide may mean that each college must be responsible for specific equitable data targets to increase various outcomes. By contrast, a student affairs effort may mean informal drop-ins from students when they need help or support. From my observations, established men-of-color initiatives help ensure that students feel validated and supported by peers and associated staff or faculty (Huerta, in press). In other instances, men of color attending a rural university also wanted support in navigating and succeeding in college, but the institution infrastructure was not sufficiently developed (Huerta et al., 2021). Ultimately, it is important that students know that they have a stable support system invested in their success. Focusing on the intersectional experiences of men of color is also critical; how will men-of-color programming explore gender identity, sexual orientation, dating and sexual violence, and gendered expectations with the integration of ethnic and racial identities? This is equally important to the mechanics of being a successful college student.
There are wide funding disparities for men-of-color retention initiatives who are tasked with solving the institutional persistence and graduation problems. Some men-of-color retention initiatives’ annual budgets hover near the low four figures, while others are in the mid-six figures. This causes a wide discrepancy in the depth of programming and the availability of full-time staff or faculty who could support and mentor men of color, scholarships, or professional development opportunities for students, and other resources to ensure the students have an integrated and well-designed initiative. All this is to say that provosts, associate provosts, and vice presidents of student affairs should be strategic with the investment and funding of men of color retention initiatives. These initiatives will require the necessary staffing and funding infrastructure and patience to move the retention and graduation needle in a positive direction for men of color (Oliver, 2018). Also, codeveloped metrics for men of color success are important for these initiatives. Depending on one’s role at the institution, different data points will matter, such as semester-to-semester retention, the relative academic performance of involved and noninvolved students, and time to degree completion. Whatever the intended outcomes, it is important to discuss critical milestones to determine additional funding and staffing mechanisms for the men of color retention initiative. It is also important to note that men of color retention initiatives cannot solve all institutional challenges related to men of color. So, these initiatives’ development may substantially shape the alignment of a gender equity task force. This task force is strongly encouraged to understand the institutional needs for men in general as well as women and nonbinary students.
Men-of-color retention initiatives can serve as a source of support and mutual benefit for students, staff, and faculty. Beyond the obvious goal of increasing degree completion, these initiatives are valuable opportunities to enhance men of color’s personal relationships, educational and professional experiences in college, and more substantial outcomes related to alumni engagement and career placement.
Belkin, D. (2021, September 6). A generation of American men give up on college: “I just feel lost.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/college-university-fall-higher-education-men-women-enrollment-admissions-back-to-school-11630948233
Huerta, A. H., & Dizon, J. P. M. (2021). Redistributing resources for men of color in higher education. About Campus, 26(4), 19–25. https://doi.org/10.1177/10864822211038932
Huerta, A. H. (in press). Exploring undergraduate students’ emotional vulnerability in men of color programs. Journal of College Student Development.
Huerta, A. H., Salazar, M. E., & Dizon, J. P. M. (2021). “No space for humanizing us”: Men of color identifying institutional needs at a rural university. Journal of College Student Retention. https://doi.org/10.1177/15210251211058636
Oliver, S. T. (2018). Practice or perish: How overexposure and premature claims of success undermine men of color initiatives. About Campus, 22(6), 18–21. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.21306
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Rates of high school completion and bachelor’s degree attainment among persons age 25 and over, by race/ethnicity and sex: Selected years, 1910 through 2018. Last updated March. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d18/tables/dt18_104.10.asp
Sáenz, V. B., & Ponjuan, L. (2009). The vanishing Latino male in higher education. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 8(1), 54–89. https://doi.org/10.1177/1538192708326995
Adrian H. Huerta, PhD, is an assistant professor of education in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. His research has been funded by the US Department of Education, ECMC Foundation, and others.