Ask Not Whether Men of Color Are Ready for College—Ask Whether Colleges Are Ready for Them

October 8, 2019 @ 5:29 pm
By Communications Office

Professor Ron Mincy (right) greets CSSW alumnus Nathan Smith, who received his MSW in 2002 and is the Director of Social Work and Counseling Services at Harlem Village Academies.

A new report co-authored by Professor Ronald Mincy tackles the systemic issues behind low college completion rates for men of color in America.

President Barack Obama once called a college degree an “economic imperative that every family in America has to be able to afford.” Today, although student debt weighs heavily on some families, statistics still show that a college degree is worth it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median earnings of adults with bachelor’s degrees are 64 percent higher than of adults who graduated only from high school.

One group of Americans, however, has yet to reap the benefits of a college education. Very few young men of color hold college degrees, and those few who enroll in college tend to have low completion rates—outcomes that are reflected in their more limited career opportunities and lower lifetime earnings.

A recent report, co-authored by Maurice B. Russell Professor Ronald B. Mincy for the Executives’ Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, addresses the challenges men of color face in obtaining higher education and focuses on the policy and systemic changes that could help them surmount these challenges. The Executives’ Alliance is a broad-based coalition working to ensure full inclusion for American boys and men of color in economic, educational, leadership, and wellness opportunities. With funding from the Lumina Foundation, it provided grants to sites in these six cities:

  1. Buffalo, NY
  2. Detroit, MI
  3. Little Rock, AR
  4. Los Angeles, CA
  5. Newark, NJ
  6. Oakland, CA

The grantees were instructed to engage with colleges and a variety of other stakeholders about what it would take to improve post-secondary educational outcomes for boys and men of color.

READ: UNLOCKING EXCELLENCE: Advancing Postsecondary Success for Men of Color through Policy and Systems Change (PDF: 40 pages)

The communications office asked Professor Mincy to illuminate some of the main points in his report.

Professor Mincy, you have had a long and distinguished research career examining the plight of low-skilled men, especially men of color, in American society. What in your view makes the findings of this report so significant?

Only 32 percent of Black men and 24 percent of Hispanic men over the age of 25 hold any kind of college degree (including associates, bachelors, and post-baccalaureate), as compared to 44 percent of White men and 65 percent of Asian men.2 Meanwhile, getting a four-year college education has become critical in today’s economy. In fact, the only workers who have fully recovered their wages since the 2008 recession are workers with a four-year degree or more. And even as higher education enrollment for men of color has been rising over time, the completion rates within six years of enrollment are only 46 percent for Hispanic males and 30 percent for Black males, lagging far behind the 68 percent of Asian men and 58 percent of White men.3 This project went directly to the core of this issue by working with colleges, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders to look for ways to improve persistence and completion of higher education among men of color. Furthermore, the project worked with a wide variety of colleges in a diverse set of communities around the country.

What kinds of measures are you and the other report authors calling on colleges to take?

We argue that more colleges need to become “men of color ready.” To put it another way: they should treat men of color as the new nontraditional student. After all, colleges have adapted their procedures to various groups of nontraditional students in the past. Following World War II, they were under pressure to adapt to the needs of female students. More recently, they have responded to calls to adapt to people with physical or cognitive, emotional, or other learning disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ—two of the latest groups of nontraditional students. For example, each semester I will receive one or more emails from the Office Of Disability Services instructing me to allow one or more students additional time to complete an examination, which other students must complete during the normal class schedule. The student with the accommodation has contacted the Office of Disability Services and explained, to the satisfaction of that office, that some accommodation is needed, and it is not even appropriate for me to ask why. In all of these cases, colleges have paid close attention to ways in which their environments create barriers to “feelings of belonging” among nontraditional students.

Do male students of color face special barriers to belonging?

Male students of color differ from other students in many ways. Disproportionately large numbers of boys of color have been incarcerated and/or have grown up in the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system, or have been taken out of regular classrooms and assigned to classrooms for students with ADHD. These various forms of institutionalization have compromised their preparation for college and make them stand out. Colleges must adapt in order to help these students catch up. Besides compromising their preparation for college, prior institutionalization also means that many male students of color often lack the family and community supports that help other students succeed in college settings. Arranging such supports on campus can help to increase persistence and completion among male students of color. Research shows there are other factors, too, that contribute to an absence of “feelings of belonging” on college campuses among men of color. For example, they are woefully underrepresented on college campuses and they rarely find men of color among the faculty and administrative staff of the colleges they attend. Therefore, increasing persistence and completion among men of color may also require changes in hiring practices so that more of the faculty and staff these students encounter are also men of color.

As an expert on this topic, were there findings or lessons from any of the six projects that surprised you?

Absolutely. Besides being interested in seeing more men of color complete college, I am also interested in seeing formerly incarcerated students, many of whom are men of color, complete their college degrees. I have been working with several non-governmental organizations in New York City in an attempt to provide coordinated services to formerly incarcerated students. This work faces many challenges. As you may know, Pell grants were the source of funding for incarcerated students until the Clinton-era crime bill put that to an end. Various funders tried to fill in the gaps by offering higher education courses in prison. But the problem is, they never anticipated that large numbers of incarcerated men would begin college coursework while incarcerated but then leave prison without completing their college degrees. By participating in this study, I learned that formerly incarcerated students in California face enormous barriers in trying to continue their education once released. Even though California has one of the largest public community college systems in the country, very few of these institutions allow transfer credits that were earned while in prison. In New York, by contrast, where I do my work, Nyack College accepts college credits from many of the New York State colleges that provide course offerings in prison. This makes it much easier for formally incarcerated students to continue their college education once released. After viewing the California system, I feel less daunted by the challenges we face in New York doing this work.

We’d like to thank Professor Mincy for taking the time to answer our questions. His report sounds like a “must read.”


1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Current Population Survey.
2 U.S. Census Bureau. Current Population Survey, 2018 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.
3 National Center for Education Statistics. The condition of education 2018.