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CHICAGO — Donje Gates’ family wants him to go to college in the fall, to “break that cycle” of so many young Black men choosing other paths.

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This story also appeared in Los Angeles Times

But he’s keeping his options open.

“The thing is,” given its high price and questions about its value, “college might be a scam,” said Gates, an 18-year-old senior at Bogan Computer Technical High School on Chicago’s South Side. He’s considering going to a trade school instead.

Donje Gates, a senior at Bogan Computer Technical High School in Chicago. Gates’ family wants him to go to college in the fall, but he thinks college “might be a scam,” given his questions about its value. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Gates was among the scores of high school students who accepted an invitation to visit Malcolm X College, a community college in Chicago, as part of a program run jointly with the Chicago Public Schools. With an enrollment that is now three-quarters female, Malcolm X — like colleges and universities across the country — is struggling to find new ways to attract men like him to campus.

Women now make up about 58 percent of U.S. college undergraduates, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and each year far more women are enrolling in higher education than men. The trend is especially acute for Black men, with about 138,000 fewer Black men enrolled in college last year than in 2017.

The situation has become so worrying that some colleges have started to treat men as a group that needs additional support, seeking ways to both attract male students and keep them enrolled from one year to the next.

At Malcolm X, college leaders took a close look at student data and realized that Black men were dropping out in far higher numbers than other segments of the student body. In response, they started a new mentoring program that pairs an instructor or other employee with two Black male students. This has helped. While 43 percent of Black male students dropped out between the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022, President David Sanders said, 93 percent of the few dozen men in the mentoring program stuck around.

Related: How higher education lost its shine

Still, it can be a challenge persuading men to seek academic help, said Sanders, who is Black.

“There’s an expectation for a male,” he said. “He’s supposed to be strong and not show weakness. If I can’t read or write at college level, I can’t show that.”

Colleges and universities have had a difficult time attracting students of any gender recently. Undergraduate enrollment is down by 1.11 million just since 2019, according to the clearinghouse.

Malcolm X College President David Sanders. “There’s an expectation for a male. He’s supposed to be strong and not show weakness,” Sanders says. “If I can’t read or write at college level, I can’t show that.” Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

The obstacles are not only financial and academic, but also cultural. One of the most difficult challenges can be breaking through the conflicting messages men and boys have been getting from family and friends for years.

Berea College in Kentucky has 18 percent fewer male students now than in 2019, and the college has started focusing on attracting Appalachian men — and keeping them there.

Rick Childers, a Berea alumnus who leads the Appalachian initiative, said a lot of the male students he comes across from the region face the same outdated ideas about masculinity that he did.

“You’re encouraged to go better yourself, but my dad would always call me ‘college boy,’ ” Childers said. “It was confusing, because I thought it was what I was supposed to be doing. But then there’s this resentment.”

It’s difficult to recruit men who have been brought up to believe college isn’t for them, educators say.

Among the groups trying to change such childhood messages is an American Psychological Association task force aimed at getting teachers and others to better understand boys and their educational needs.

“[R]igid conceptions of masculinity, that include anti-school sentiments, harm their well-being, and contribute to adverse outcomes in education,” the task force notes on its website. “All boys have the capacity to reach their full potential, especially within schools; yet, many boys experience unnecessary and preventable distress and hardship.”

Related: Bachelor’s degree dreams of community college students get stymied by red tape — and it’s getting worse

Nationally, about 138,000 fewer Black men were enrolled in college last year compared to 2017.

More educators would be inclined to help boys and men if it weren’t for mistaken assumptions about that male privilege, said Ioakim Boutakidis, a task force member and professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University Fullerton. Boutakidis said he has encountered that pushback at his own campus as he has tried to get the university to pay attention to male enrollment and academics.

Even his own colleagues have expressed skepticism about the need for more focus on male students, he said.

“I go where the data tells me to go,” said Boutakidis, the father of two adolescent boys. “If I care about equity gaps, then I’ll put my efforts where the equity gaps are biggest. I’m not trying to bring an ideology to this.”

Related: Momentum builds for helping students adapt to college by nixing freshman grades

Boutakidis suggested that the easiest way to start to close those equity gaps is to focus first on men of color, who are less likely to attend college than white men.*

Some colleges across the country have done just that, with a bevy of race-specific initiatives cropping up on campuses.

California’s 116-campus community college system has boosted support of its African American Male Education Network and Development program, or A2MEND, to attract and retain Black men. The program is meant to improve the climate for Black male students by providing one-on-one mentoring and meeting spaces to create a sense of community. It has given out $700,000 in scholarships to Black men, according to Amanuel Gebru, vice president of student support at Moorpark and the president of the A2MEND board.

Donta Lindsey, a senior at Ombudsman Chicago Northwest, was among students who accepted an invitation to visit Malcolm X College in Chicago in a program run jointly with the Chicago Public Schools. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Black men need even more commitment, Gebru said.

“We’re making efforts, but we haven’t done enough,” he said. “There’s a lot of initiatives and conversations about creating safer spaces in the classroom for Black male students, but there isn’t policy to say we have to hire more Black faculty and staff at these colleges.”

Just 7 percent of U.S. faculty members are Black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and Moorpark College said just 2 percent of its faculty is Black. The U.S. population is 13.6% Black.

Moorpark has added “equity lounges,” summer trips to Africa, and seminars for professors on how to best teach men. It has asked every department to gather data on its male students and has developed counseling and mentoring programs for Black and Latino men.

New Jersey’s Montclair State University last year launched the Male Enrollment and Graduation Alliance to increase the number of male Black and Latino students. Forty percent of the students at Montclair State are male, 36 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are Black.

Related: What’s a college degree worth? States start to demand colleges share the data.

Montclair has tried a range of methods to attract male students from cities such as Newark and Camden — everything from counseling and tutoring to providing toiletries and food. But many communities still believe men don’t belong in college, said the initiative’s director, assistant provost Daniel Jean.

“There are more accolades for getting out of jail than for graduating from college,” he said. “There’s an anti-intellectual environment that’s gotten worse. The definition of manhood is often flawed.”

“We’re making efforts, but we haven’t done enough. There’s a lot of initiatives and conversations about creating safer spaces in the classroom for Black male students, but there isn’t policy to say we have to hire more Black faculty and staff at these colleges.”

Amanuel Gebru, board president, A2MEND

Boys and men in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to focus more on other things than college, said Vaughn Smith Jr., a 23-year-old Montclair State senior from Newark. Smith, who is Black, said he decided as a high school senior that he wanted more from life. Most of his male high school classmates did go to college, he said, but many of them have since dropped out.

Men don’t support each other the way women do, Smith said, which makes it harder to find male role models.

“Men are very competitive,” he said, “so we don’t succeed as much because we’re always trying to get ahead of each other.”

Similar trends are being seen in Appalachia. Another challenge, some educators there said, is that men have had a particularly difficult time recovering from the isolation of Covid lockdowns. To address this, many campus initiatives are now including social gatherings and one-on-one mentoring. At Berea, the Appalachian program has held dinners and organized road trips to baseball games and museums, with varying levels of success.

“I’ve had events where literally one person showed up and I had to throw away a bunch of food,” Childers said. Attendance has improved since he made the events more casual. “We pull out our hair trying to figure out how to get them engaged. It’s come down to they just want to relax and blow off some steam with each other.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that college-going declines have been steepest among Black men. 

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