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There are multiple accountability issues facing higher education, including the recruitment, retention, and graduation of all students, but particularly students of color. These issues have been most prevalent among African Americans, where graduation rates of these admitted students hovers near 40% (Camera, 2016). Additionally, only 28% of African Americans graduate within six years from the institution in which they initially enroll (Shapiro, Dundar, Huie, Wakungu, Yuan, Nathan, & Hwang, 2017). The Shapiro report also indicated that only 25% of African American men graduate from the institution in which they initially enroll, and that 33% of these men actually graduate in total within six years. Many reasons have been identified for the low graduation rates of African American men, including mentoring, student support services, academic preparation, and even sociological reasons that suggest that a community's expectation is low or non-existent for these students' success.

Student persistence problems are not isolated to any particular student population, and are common throughout higher education. Students who are admitted to an institution are often provided a wide array of resources to help them stay focused and graduate in a timely manner, yet there are students who are not well situated for the institutions where they have enrolled, and many of these students also lack the appropriate skills to be successful in college. Other personal issues ranging from relationships to part-time employment also impact a student's ability to graduate from college, and enrollment management professionals struggle to find the best ways to reach out to students to assure them every opportunity for success.

Many enrollment management efforts focus on early-intervention programs that target individual students who may be at-risk for dropping or stopping out of their enrollment. These programs are often highly personal and rely on individuals contacting and communicating with the at-risk student, and attempting to provide resources or access to information or money to continue their studies. Most of these programs are broadly designed to assist as many students as possible, and fewer programs have been designed to specifically respond to minority student populations.

Therefore, the purpose for conducting the study was to identify, through the voices of highly successful African American men, critical strategies and resources that colleges and universities can use to improve the graduation opportunities of African American male undergraduates.

Background of the Study

Colleges and universities have been consistently interested in strategies and techniques to enroll diverse populations, and once enrolled, to help them graduate. These have been targeted at specific minority groups and across many skill levels, and have been organized by offices as varied as student affairs, academic affairs, outreach, and even left to the individual academic units. In responding to African American men in particular, strategies and resources have been directed to address student financial shortfalls, academic deficiencies, and the social adjustment and integration to the college environment.

One of the first barriers that have been identified for college access for nearly all populations has been the cost of attendance. The cost of a college education can be a problem for initial enrollment as well as continuing enrollment, and this is particularly true for many African American men who are the first in their families to enroll in college (Elliott & Nam, 2012). As a result, many campuses have responded with on-campus financial assistance programs, such as work-study opportunities, and have given students a means of not only gaining professional skills, but to earning money while attending college (Venezia & Jaeger, 2013)

Other financial programs targeting need-based student enrollment include federal loan programs (Gross, Torres, & Zerquera, 2013). Though federal loans can assist students in attaining a college degree, they must be paid back with interest, leaving students with a higher risk of graduating with significant debt (Houle, 2014) or dropping out of college due to feelings about financial insecurity (Dwyer, Hodson, & McCloud, 2013). Research has shown that students who are awarded aid that is not required to be paid back are more likely to graduate from college (Chen, 2012). Thus, state governments, private foundations, and institutions have sought ways, including fundraising to endow scholarship programs and other "free" money programs to increase need-based funding to students.

Academic program leaders have noticed that financial aid alone does not increase successful undergraduate attrition, and some institutional programs have emphasized pairing scholarships with mentoring and training programs (Wilson, Iyengar, Pang, Warner, & Luces, 2012). Additionally, experimental programs have been designed to include undergraduate research to help engage and support students (Jones, Barlow, & Villarejo, 2010).

A student's need for academic support in higher education may be determined partially by the quality of education and emotional encouragement received from high school teachers and counselors. Pre-enrollment academic factors, such as college preparation, high aspirations, and established goals have been attributed to helping students navigate the demands that come in the college experience (Simmons, 2013; Chen, 2012; Palmer, Maramba, & Dancy, 2011). The result for students once they are enrolled are a patchwork of academic and non-academic support programs that are designed to identify students who are at-risk and to provide the resources necessary to help keep the student in school and academically successful (Wilson et al, 2012).

The other element of pre-college enrollment impacting retention, particularly among African American men, is that of remediation. Some studies shown that students were more likely to graduate by completing remedial courses while pursuing undergraduate studies (Bettinger & Long, 2009). Research has also focused on why students need remediation, such as the experience, credential status, educational attainment, and cultural competence of students' high school teachers; ultimately, how well a secondary school prepared a student for college (Howell, 2011; Scott, Taylor, & Palmer, 2013). Parker (2007) argued that the need for remediation courses should address the academic preparation gap found between high schools and colleges (Davis & Palmer, 2010). Further, student success courses that engage students with learning about college, such as study and organizational skills, as well as learning how to use resources on campus, were beneficial for student success in college (O'Gara, Karp, & Hughes, 2009).

Academic advising and tutoring have also been discussed as beneficial academic supports provided by colleges for students (Bettinger, Boatman, & Long, 2013; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013). Peer tutoring programs have offered academic and learning support for students who have required extra assistance (Munley, Garvey, McConnell, 2010), and in turn has increased student engagement in academic activities (Kim, 2015). Tutoring services and techniques, such as Reciprocal Peer Tutoring (RPT), have also shown to improve the academic performance of students (Dioso-Henson, 2012). Research has shown that peer-group support served as an academic support for students of color while attending college and, in addition, provided social support by offering students a positive social network (Palmer, Maramba, & Dancy, 2011). Though academic support has been a critical component of developing Black male resiliency (Kim & Hargrove, 2013), research has shown that academic support is not the sole component that promises success on college campuses. High achieving African American college men are more apt to have higher levels of self-efficacy and social integration (Reid, 2013). Social integration can be achieved through multiple agencies, including fraternities and academic organizations (Simmons, 2013). Creating social networks with faculty and administrators (Reid, 2013) has also been identified as a way for students to connect with role models and other African American men, thus building important social support networks.

Literature has suggested that college students persist through post-secondary education by recognizing the value of support offered by family and community members (Scott, Taylor, & Palmer, 2013). Equally important is the concept of community expectancy, which argues that the behavior, beliefs, principles, and actions of community agents, such as family, neighbors, teachers, religious bodies, informal associations, and other elements that students interact with inside of their immediate environment, impacts an individual's values and behaviors (Miller & Deggs, 2012).

The unique role of spiritual or religious institutions within African American communities has traditionally been a center of social life where community members find those with similar characteristics and opportunities for both informal and formal communication. These bodies allow for the building of friendships, and that coupled with the spiritual aspects of faith demonstration have been found to impact positive self-identity among students (Dancy, 2010) and greater success in college (Jett, 2010). Resources that can elevate a student's chance to graduate from college are critical to narrowing the gap between African American men earning a high school diploma and a college degree.

So with a multiple number of variables impacting all student success, and particularly the success of a small minority within the larger institution, there is tremendous need to try and identify best practices and phenomena or experiences that are contributing to student success. The current study used the vast existing body of literature on student success and the African American man on campus in particular, to frame a descriptive study that can lead to the creation of hypotheses and models that ultimately can result in the creation of mitigating variables to influence student persistence.

Research Methods

The purpose for conducting the study was to identify, through the voices of African American men, critical strategies and resources that colleges and universities can use to improve the graduation opportunities of African American male undergraduates. A qualitative, phenomenological research method was identified for use to identify and describe common phenomenon among lived experiences of participants' college attendance (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Moustakas, 1994; Van Manen, 1990; 2014). Qualitative research approaches inform research problems that address the meaning that individuals and groups assign to social problems, such as the experience of enrolling in college by African American men (Creswell, 2013).

A phenomenological research approach was used to examine the issue that has been identified in previous research-based literature. Subsequently, procedural steps were completed to ensure rigor during the identification of themes that emerged during data collection and analysis (Pereira, 2012). Participants' prior experiences with pre-enrollment factors, academic assistance, and social experiences while enrolling in and attending postsecondary education was sought by a purposeful sampling method to recruit participants, construction of a structured interview protocol, and interview questions developed from prior research studies.

A structured interview protocol, including three open-ended interview questions, and probes, was created to collect data from interview participants (Moustakas, 1994). Non-verbal responses by participants were also noted as critical for obtaining accurate feedback during interviews. According to Polkinghomek (1989), 5-25 individuals who share similar phenomenon, or experiences, should suffice as a suitable number of participants to interview. The current study included 11 participants who identified as African American men, advanced-degree holding, and were 25 years or older at the time of the interview. Each individual was contacted by email and voluntarily gave his consent to schedule and participate in a 60-90 minute interview. Eight participants agreed to face-to-face interviews, and three participants, because of geographic location, agreed to interview by telephone. To ensure trustworthiness, standards of validation and reliability, such as structural corroboration were sought to strengthen the credibility of the study (Eisner, 1991).

Initially, interview transcripts of audio recordings were typed to provide a coherent and comprehensive view of participant responses. Validation standards, including bracketing, were used to minimize researcher bias and view phenomenon from a fresh and neutral perspective to allow emerging information to guide data analysis (Moustakas, 1994; Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). Triangulation of multiple data sources was applied by note-taking in an interviewer's journal, member-checking (Hays & Singh, 2012; Glesne, 2016), collaborating with participants (Patton, 2015), and generating descriptions to provide detail and promote transferability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Stake, 2010). Procedures to ensure reliability included establishing a code list (Creswell & Poth, 2018) and applying the code list to typed transcriptions to compare with each researcher's interpretation of emergent themes found through analysis of data gathered from participant feedback. All interviews were conducted in the spring and summer of 2017.


Four dominant themes were identified that were associated with African American men graduating from college, including mentorship, socialization, on-campus supports, and family and community expectations. Each theme contributed to a supportive role that guided these men toward earning an undergraduate degree. We found, according to our participants' responses, components that led to college graduation that have been established in prior research studies focused on successful college retention and graduation strategies of African American undergraduate men.

Mentorship: Nearly all of our study's participants described particular individuals who supported them, whether academically, socially, or emotionally, while they attended college and advanced toward graduation. Mentorships were critical components that promoted students' development and self-actualization during transitions, that would have otherwise, been more difficult to progress through while enrolled in college. Mentoring relationships, for each participant, developed through interpersonal associations within a social network, whether in formal or informal settings, on-campus or within their own neighborhoods and communities.

Several of our participants recalled how mentorships began, some on-campus, but many from students' communities. One participant who played NCAA sports explained how his coaches reinforced positive values and principles, and gave him support while he advanced toward his degree. A number of participants discussed how leaders in formal organizations, including fraternities or other on-campus organizations, gave them opportunities to meet individuals with similar characteristics or circumstances, and leaders from those organizations served as models for students. Several participants described how their family, high school teachers, and community members, were support systems for them and were vital to their persistence during college, even when a school was geographically distant from home.

Mentorships can offer students several benefits during their years of attendance. For example, one respondent said "I was just kind of lost when it [college] started. I mean I fumbled around campus and didn't get it. Then I had a professor who talked to me after class, and then we kept talking after class. He took me under his wing, and it helped me get grounded on campus." Another student had a similar comment: "I had this RA who looked like me. I mean he was Black. And he didn't just talk to me about classes and keeping out of trouble, he studied with me. He ate lunch with me. He just hung out with me. That wasn't a formal 'be my mentor' kind of relationship, but that is really what it became. He watched out for me, and it made a difference."

Socialization: Some students, at times, may feel a sense of conflict between their cultural background and the cultural norms that exists on a college campus. Students, generally from a minority population, may be susceptible to feelings of displacement and may have a peculiar outlook among those students that represent dominant populations on campus. Without sufficient support, some of these students may not engage with their collegiate experience as well as those that have assimilated to a campus by progressing through developmental stages and achieving a strong self-efficacy. Most of our participants discussed how they advanced through college during feelings of social isolation on campus.

Nearly all of our participants described feelings of seclusion and awkwardness while living on or attending courses on campus. Each of our participants felt underrepresented within the student population which accounted for many emotional feelings, including loneliness. Most found comfort by seeking out associations with individuals or groups that had similar circumstances or had previously overcome such feelings and successfully progressed through post-secondary education. Some participants also took advantage of student support services offered through their schools.

On-campus Supports: Many colleges and universities offer opportunities for students to engage with the college experience. Some of the men in our study discussed the importance of on-campus divisions that promote engagement with other ethnically diverse students. One participant described how his school's multi-cultural center was a space that allowed him to meet other students and faculty that shared his worldview and sense of under-representation on campus.

Family and Community Expectations: Each of our participants stated how family and community members supported and motivated them to remain in and graduate from college. Some family and community members previously earned degrees and offered encouragement and advice that had given them the resolve that they need to succeed while attending college. Other men described how some of their family members were able to help them financially with attendance costs. The most common response, however, was that family members helped understand that going to college would make a long-term, positive impact on the student. One student said "My Mom really opened my eyes. I don't think, with the crowd I was running with, that I would go to college or anything else. Then my Mom dragged me to this meeting in our church basement about a college recruiter. If Mom hadn't had taken me to that, I wouldn't have gone to college."

Discussion and Conclusions

Findings reinforced much of what the scholarly literature indicates regarding student success generally. The African American men interviewed offered no silver-bullet to grow enrollment, retention, or matriculation, but rather, reinforced the ingredients that have been identified for decades in studying student success. African American men, and all college students, must be positioned to find support groups and networks that will reinforce positive behavior leading to graduation, and that institutional supports for academic work must also be made available. What may be unique about the findings in the current study are that for these men who were interviewed, the social support networks were very personal and individualized. As a small minority population on campus, this notion of individualization might be particularly relevant for African American men, as issues of trust, respect, and expectation all can figure into how students see themselves.

The findings of the study also support the general tenets of community expectancy theory, suggesting that individuals must surround themselves with individuals who have an expectation for them. These expectations might be for academic performance, for peer support, or even simply providing the belief in their fellow students that they can in fact graduate from college. Further, the community expectancy theory identifies multiple formal and informal agencies that can exert expectations on an individual, and these are similarly expressed in the interview data from the study subjects.

The particular challenge for higher education administrators is how to create a community that has expectations for its members. In some instances, institutional faith is put into Greek-letter organizations, as members find ways to support and encourage each other. The Greek-letter organization structure, in recent years and historically, however, has been inconsistent in promoting positive role modeling. Institutions, working through divisions of student affairs attempt to build community in residence halls, through activities, and even in academic departments and organizations. The success or failure of these attempts to "make the campus small," as one participant said, is entirely relegated on the personalities, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes of the students who make up the smaller groups.

In the future, colleges and universities must be intentional in their actions to help all students succeed, and this extends beyond just African American men and women. Institutions must identify which practices can help students study, learn, grow, and ultimately graduate, and which activities are lodged in an institution's tradition and do not help create an expectation for certain types of behaviors. Intentional institutions that can align activities with learning and growth outcomes will ultimately be the ones that attract, enroll, retain, and graduate African American men as well as other students.

David V. Tolliver, III

Michael T. Miller

University of Arkansas


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Author:Tolliver, David V., III; Miller, Michael T.
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2018

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