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How N.C. community colleges are addressing the enrollment decline in male students of color

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Nationwide, 400,000 fewer men attended college in spring 2021 than in spring 2020, an enrollment decline nearly double that of female students. Though male enrollment has consistently trailed behind female enrollment, this trend has become more prevalent during the pandemic, further jeopardizing the educational success of the nation’s male students. Among all higher education institutions, community colleges have been hit the hardest by the male enrollment decline. 

“First-(generation) men account for 71% of the decline in college enrollment over the last five years and 78% of pandemic-related dropouts,” said Sarah Brown, a senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education and one of the hosts of a Jan. 27 webinar titled “The Covid Crisis: Helping First-Gen Men.” 

North Carolina community colleges have not been immune from this national trend. In fall 2020, the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) saw an overall 11% decline in enrollment compared to fall 2019. Black men suffered the largest enrollment decline, with traditional degree-seeking enrollment falling 14% from the year prior for this group.

What is behind these trends?

Though the enrollment decline among men of color is nothing new, COVID-19 is exacerbating the issue. Dr. John “JJ” Evans, the associate director of student life at the system office, acknowledged how far-reaching the effects of COVID-19 have been for students considering a postsecondary education.

Dr. John “JJ” Evans. Courtesy of Evans.

“Sickness, family, mental health, all of those other contextual COVID-related things have contributed to where we are as a system,” Evans said of the systemwide enrollment declines.

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on people of color, who are more likely to be essential workers in high-risk transmission settings and lack access to health care. It is not surprising, then, that in 2020, more students of color decided that enrolling in college during the pandemic was not the best option.

For students, the pandemic-related labor shortage is convincing male high school graduates to go straight into the job market rather than enroll in college, said Dr. Patrick Crane, vice president of strategic initiatives at the system office. 

Dr. Patrick Crane from NCCCS (left) and Board member Ann Whitford during a strategic planning committee meeting. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

“We’ve been doing these regional listening sessions with community college presidents and trustees, and this comes up as a recurring theme,” Crane said. “If you can make $18 an hour with a high school diploma, then the value proposition of going to college is a little bit different than if there are only minimum wage jobs available in your community.”

Shari Simon, the director of scholar success at Scholarship Plus and a panelist on the first-generation male enrollment webinar, discussed a leading reason why male students of color would rather get a job after high school than commit to their education.

“College costs a lot of money,” she said. 

However, Simon noted that cost is not the only factor. Lack of information and support also contribute to students choosing not to go to college. In her work, she has noticed that the decision to enroll in college is dependent on whether a student has access to scholarship information and understands the cost-benefit ratio of getting a degree.

Eric D. Becerra, the director of special projects at Long Beach City College and another panelist, spoke to the additional barriers students of color face after enrolling.

“I realized that getting into college wasn’t even half the battle and getting through was increasingly becoming difficult,” said Becerra. “These systems of education were not built by us or for us as people of color. So from the gate, we’re at a disadvantage.”

Evans discussed how men of color who attend postsecondary institutions can feel disconnected from the college experience, especially if they are first-generation students. When students of color struggle to find other students, faculty, or staff that look like them, they can feel like they do not belong in higher education, he said. Establishing a sense of belonging is critical for these students, but doing so has been difficult in today’s virtual world. 

“We know especially for first-generation students, having somebody that they connect to on campus is really impactful in terms of retention,” said Crane. “And so if they’re participating only through online, then that connection either doesn’t exist or doesn’t exist as strongly.”

Student chefs at Fayetteville Technical Community College making cupcakes. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

What is the risk of inaction?

For men who do not go to college, their ability to earn a living wage, support their families, and disrupt cycles of generational poverty is on the line, Crane said.  

“We know that there are already significant attainment gaps, educational attainment gaps, by race, ethnicity, and by county across the state,” he said. “And so not addressing this just continues to widen those gaps as well.”

Dr. Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, spoke to these attainment gaps during the 32nd annual Emerging Issues Forum, hosted by the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. According to Tippett, 61% of white North Carolinians ages 25-44 have a postsecondary degree or credential compared to only 42% for Black North Carolinians.

Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, presents educational attainment data at the Emerging Issues Forum. Katie Dukes/EducationNC

“For many, it is a matter of life and death,” said Becerra. “It’s a serious concern.” 

Crane noted the national rise in “deaths of despair,” or deaths by suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol abuse. College is a way to engage students who are feeling isolated or desperate and turn them away from detrimental coping mechanisms, keeping young male students on a track to success.

Crane also addressed the economic costs associated with the male enrollment decline.

“There’s a huge downside for North Carolina if this isn’t addressed,” Crane said. “If we’re not able to meet the worker demand of these growing industries who keep coming to North Carolina, that will ultimately slow the growth and slow the increase of businesses that are coming to the state.”

To avoid these costs, North Carolina’s higher education leaders are stepping up to highlight the tangible benefits of enrolling in college and to keep enrolled students engaged in their education.

Minority Male Success Initiative

At the North Carolina Community College System office, Evans is transforming the college experience for male students through his leadership of the Minority Male Success Initiative (MMSI). MMSI started in 2003 with state funding and has continued to address minority male attainment and achievement gaps since then.

Currently, 21 of North Carolina’s community colleges are receiving funding for one of three options that the MMSI offers: programming, success coaches, and Early Alert.

Four community colleges received funding for programming that supports student leadership programs and clubs for minority male students. Six community colleges received funding for full-time success coaches for at-risk minority male students. The other 11 community colleges received funding for an Early Alert system. This approach is supported by Watermark Insights (previously Aviso Retention), which developed software now used by the participating community colleges to track the success of minority male students through data about attendance, grades, etc. These indicators are used to identify and reach out to students who may be at risk of dropping out.

Evans likened the MMSI approach to one where the system office acts as air traffic control, taking care of big picture issues and guiding the airplanes. The airplanes are the community colleges, piloting their own programs informed by a direct sense for what their passengers (students) truly need. 

According to Evans, this student-centered approach boosts engagement levels and the sense of belonging of minority male students. Studies conducted by Watermark Insights support the success of these programs for North Carolina’s community college students. Results show that students who are assigned a success coach had a 6% increase in fall-to-fall retention and were 4% more likely to stay enrolled for two academic years.

An analysis of the Early Alert system revealed that early intervention was associated with a 1.8% increase in minority male course completion rates and a 1.5% increase in persistence rates, which eliminated the gap in persistence rates between white and Black male students.

The system office is committed to strengthening the success of the MMSI in 2022, which marks the beginning of a new grant cycle for the initiative, said Evans.

EAnne Goodson and Mohamed Elessawy, nursing students at Wilson Community College, practice treating a patient with congestive heart failure in a simulation. Liz Bell/EducationNC

Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative

Several North Carolina community colleges are also involved in another initiative to address gaps in male enrollment. Crane is overseeing the implementation of the Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative.

REACH is an effort spearheaded by the Lumina Foundation to recruit and retain adult learners of color across 24 North Carolina community colleges. The goal of REACH is a 2% increase in high-quality credential attainment and outcomes for these students over the next two years.

North Carolina was one of just six states selected to take part in REACH. Though the work is in its early stages, Crane explained how critical this work will be for the success of North Carolina’s adult learners

“The focus of the work is really to connect adult learners of color to short-term high-value programs that are stackable,” said Crane.

Stackable programs allow short-term credentials to be used as a step-up to the next highest credential. Crane explained that being able to build upon credentials will allow adult learners to work their way up to earning an associate degree and beyond.

Participating community colleges are currently working on identifying what these programs could be and narrowing the list based on which programs have high returns on investment in their region of the state.

Crane explained how this step fits into the long-term goals of REACH, saying, “Once those programs are identified, these pathways are mapped out to try and recruit adult learners of color from the community into these programs, leading to family-sustaining wage jobs for those in the area.”

Community colleges participating in REACH are currently developing marketing recruitment and enrollment efforts to target adult learners, Crane said. Though REACH is not specifically addressing male adult learners, the hope is that these efforts will impact their enrollment.

REACH is funded by the Lumina Foundation and the John M. Belk Endowment.

students work on a large Diesel engine
At James Sprunt Community College’s new diesel technology program, students learn to fix engines, often with plans to repair tractors after graduation. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Why this work matters

“Increasing enrollment is probably one of the top two issues that we’re hearing about from community college presidents, trustees, and administrators,” said Crane. 

In 2019, myFutureNC announced an attainment goal of having 2 million North Carolinians aged 25-44 with a high-quality credential or degree by 2030. Rectifying the decline in minority male enrollment is essential to accomplishing this goal.

As open-door institutions, community colleges offer pathways to economic opportunity for anyone who is interested. Ensuring that North Carolina’s male students of color are included in that proposition will boost their economic potential and help close the state’s attainment gaps.

Editor’s note: The John M. Belk Endowment supports the work of EducationNC.

Alessandra Quattrocchi

Alessandra Quattrocchi is an executive fellow at EducationNC.