Social Impact LIVE: Ron Mincy on Advancing Higher Education for Men of Color

October 30, 2019 @ 4:30 pm

Richard Hara is joined by CSSW professor Ron Mincy for a discussion on the unique challenges men of color face while pursuing a college degree.


Richard Hara: Hello, I’m Richard Hara, and this is Social Impact LIVE, a weekly conversation with members of the Columbia School of Social Work Community. I’m joined today by Dr. Ronald Mincy. Dr. Mincy is the Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Work Practice, and director of the Center for Research on Fathers, Children, and Family Well-Being. He is a co-principal investigator of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and a faculty member of the Columbia Population Research Center. Dr. Mincy is the author of many journal articles and book chapters, and is the editor of Black Males Left Behind published by The Urban Institute Press. He is also an advisory board member for the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, the Technical Work Group for the Office of Policy Research and Evaluation, the Transition to Fatherhood project at Cornell University, the National Fatherhood Leaders Group, the Longitudinal Evaluation of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and The Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Dr. Mincy, welcome to Social Impact LIVE.

Ron Mincy: Thank you for having me.

Richard Hara: I provided a sample of the range of policy issues and topics, projects that you’ve been involved with over your career. And most recently, a report has come out for your project, it’s called “Unlocking Excellence: Advancing Postsecondary Success for Men of Color through Policy and Systems Change.” So, we’re happy to have you here to talk a little bit about this project, but can you give us at least some background and how your previous research interest has sort of led you to doing this project?

Ron Mincy: Sure. So, my major work has been around child support enforcement and more generally in the role of men in families. And over the years, it has become pretty clear that unless we increase the educational attainment of men of color, we’re not going to make much progress in child poverty. And so, what brought me to this project was the idea of how do we actually accomplish that because, we know that rates of high school graduation, the gaps between white men and men of color have declined over time. Enrollment rates of men of color have increased in higher education, but they’re not graduating at very high rates. And so, the challenge is, how do we have — get more success among men of color who are enrolled in college in terms of the rate at which they graduate with a four-year degree. And the opportunity to — then to work with the foundation community and with institutes of higher education to work on this task was what sort of brought me to this project.

Richard Hara: Okay. So, where are we right now as far as men of color and being able to enter into college and finish college?

Ron Mincy: Well, again, the graduation rates are, are less than a third of the graduation rates of white men. And I think the more general problem is, because we’ve not collected data, institutions of higher learning tend to collect data on the, the success of their students moving through the system in order to report to financial aid to the, to the authorities that provide financial aid. And because those authorities don’t require the disaggregation of those data by race, ethnicity, or gender, we may know what their graduation rates are, but we don’t know, you know, how many are succeeding from freshman year to sophomore year? What courses are the primary barriers to their success? And so, part of the purpose of the project was to encourage and incent institutions of higher learning to disaggregate the data that they have, so that they can better support students as they’re moving through.

Richard Hara: Okay. So, before we get to an analysis of that, what are the consequences for men of color not finishing college?

Ron Mincy: So, I think they are, they are legion. So, for example, the only people in the United States who have recovered their wages from the 2008 recession are people with a four-year college degree or more, everyone else is still earning less in real terms than they earned prior to the recession that began in 2007/2008. And so, we’ve, we’ve experienced basically a very little growth in wages since I graduated from college in 1974. And, and, and where we have had growth, it’s among men who have a four-year college degree or more. And so, everyone else has experienced a stagnation or decline in their earnings. And since the graduation rates with a four-year degree of men of color are very, very low, they are in the population of people who have seen virtually no progress in their wages in more than 40 years. So, this is a real, this is one of these fundamental challenges that again, we’re never going to resolve these issues of child poverty unless we figure out how to — and there’s also a recent report that was released by McKinsey that talks about who is vulnerable to automation. And because men of color tend to be employed in occupations that don’t require a college education, they’re in manufacturing, transportation and the like, they are vulnerable to, to any sort of technology that can replace skills that are used, you know, in a very repetitive way. And so, men of color are concentrated in those occupations, primarily because they don’t have four-year college degrees. So, this is a very forward-looking — what brought me to this is a very forward-looking analysis of where men of color fit in the occupational and income distribution, and then, trying to go to the source, which is institutions of higher learning to figure out what can be done.

Richard Hara: Okay. Well, well, you’ve established the critical need for this information now. And so, what were you able to learn and what can we do about this?

Ron Mincy: Well, the report sort of talks about, you know, six cornerstones to resolving — to increasing rates of persistence and completion. And the couple that I want to focus on for this brief conversation are the really the need to disaggregate the data that we have about men of color and the rate at which they’re moving — first of all, we need to better understand what are the most popular courses that, that on any college campus that these students take. And among those courses, which of the courses — which are the sort of fields in which they are most successful, and which are the fields in which they are least successful, and then try to figure out what is happening in the fields that are successful, where that, that might be replicated in the fields in which they are not so successful.

Richard Hara: For men of color?

Ron Mincy: For men of color, right. And the challenge, again, is that because we — most institutions of higher learning don’t disaggregate their data, then we don’t have the answer to it, for any of the questions I just posed. So, for example, we were working with a, with a group of schools in a collaboration in Arkansas, and what we learned was — sorry, in, in, in Newark, New Jersey, and they had the, the interest and the capacity of the dean’s office, of the registrar’s office and a number of other senior administrators at, at, at Newark, so that they were able to disaggregate their data and learn that the, the, the students of color who — male students of color who were enrolled in accounting were doing much better than the students of color who were enrolled in engineering. And so, the common thread that runs through those two fields is math. And what we began to learn — what we — the question we began to ask is, well, what is happening in the first and second year of students who are enrolled in accounting, that’s not happening to students who are enrolled in engineering? It could be, you know, that the, the way in which the instruction is posed, doesn’t enable the students to use examples that they care about. And when I work with my own students in economics, I always work with them in order to help them understand, you know, we have these complicated, you know, mathematical formulations of economic problems. And I always tell my students, if that abstraction is a challenge to you, put people you care about in those variables.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Ron Mincy: And so, it could be that the form of instruction that these students are getting doesn’t resonate with them, and therefore, they’re not successful or it could be some special skill that, that an instructor has. And so, there are a variety of things that instructors can do to improve the completion and success of male students of color, but they can’t do it unless they know where the bottlenecks occurring in their, in their higher education and to change things in the right timing, so that students move from, you know, the freshman year to the sophomore year and so forth.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Ron Mincy: So, I think that’s part of the problem. I think the other cornerstone is has to do with financial aid. So, a broad swath of male students of color are first generation college students they have, they have no one in their family or even in their extended family, I was the first, first person in my extended family who ever went to college. Therefore, I knew nothing about financial aid. The — among many of these students, the reason that they’re applying for a particular college has nothing — has very little to do with, you know, the particular coursework that the college offers or things like that, because they don’t have anyone in the background to figure out what school I should go to, what courses I should take or what should happen when I fail?

In other words, if I, I, I originally wanted to be an engineer, and I failed my first course in, in, in physics, and I had an awful hard time figuring out what was Plan B, because there was no one on my college campus that I felt that I could trust, in order to have that conversation with. I ended up being an economist who knows almost as much math, but, but the, but the circuitous route I figured out in order to figure out how to, how to accommodate failure or just to respond to failure was not available to me easily, nor is it available to lots of students today. And so, we talked about how to create a climate in which male students of color feel comfortable on a college campus, and how to create opportunities for them to get the advice they need, and to, and to promote them or to make sure that they know where to go and to actively encourage them to do so, so that when they have challenges in higher education, they can move through.

Richard Hara: All right. So, it’s, it’s wonderful that this material resonates with your own experience.

Ron Mincy: Oh, absolutely.

Richard Hara: And I’m wondering, in terms of the project, so you worked with foundation funding —

Ron Mincy: Yes.

Richard Hara: — right, to create this demonstration project with colleagues of yours —

Ron Mincy: Yes.

Richard Hara: — to pick, I think it was six different sites cities where you are working with local stakeholders to look at exactly what the dynamics of these sort of postsecondary educational situations were like for men of color?

Ron Mincy: Yes. So, the project was funded by the executive alliance of, of — for men and boys of color. This is an affinity group among foundations who are — who’ve come together to work on the challenges that men of color face, and the lead foundation on this project was the Lumina Foundation, and their entire mission has to do with higher education. And what they did was, they identified six sites throughout the country, who came together in — you know, who’ve submitted applications that we vetted in order to figure out what were interesting opportunities. And so, we had lots of geographical diversity. We also had diversity in terms of the types of schools that were involved. Some of them were community colleges, some were in places around the country where they were — where public education has a large footprint. So, we were looking for diversity by region, by — and by the race and ethnicity of the men in color — of color with whom we were working. And so, there, there were six different sites in several different parts of the country, and, and each of the sites taught us something different.

Richard Hara: Okay. Before I ask you my follow up question, I just wanted to remind our audience that if you have any questions, please write them in to Facebook and we’ll bring them up and, and ask Dr. Mincy. So, so, so, this is an evidence based approach. I mean, are these demonstration sites collecting data and actually seeing if some of these cornerstones and recommendations that you’re coming up with are really resulting in, you know, higher graduation rates for men of color?

Ron Mincy: And, yes, this is exactly the purpose of the project. So, first of all, the stakeholders in the project are not only institutions of higher education, but they’re also community-based organizations that work in communities of color, who in, who in the course of their work have come to the understanding that, you know, unless we improve the rates of persistence and completion of men of color, what they’re trying to do in their communities won’t be successful. So, for one in mind is a development in Corporation in Detroit, Michigan, that played a critical role in recovering students of color in Detroit from the debacle of high school education in Detroit when the school system was essentially taken over by the state. And then, they after having figured out how to ensure that students whose high schools were open on Friday, but closed on Monday, they figured out how to rearrange the, the opportunities for students to complete high school. They then raised their vision and said, well, wait a minute. Now, that we’ve gotten a lot of these schools children graduated from high school, what about their college experience. And so, they worked with Wayne State College and got the attention of the president and provost at Wayne State College and businesses in the community, other nonprofit organizations in order to figure out how to increase persistence and completion among men of color in Detroit. And they are now working on — they hired a set of consultants and we provided technical assistance to them about how to do the, the quantitative analysis around the study of students as they move through the college system at Wayne State. But we also did technical assistance providing them, so that they could undertake focus groups, so that they could work with. It’s a very diverse population, including African-Americans, Latinos, Muslim students, a large portion of Asian students in Detroit, so that they could do focus groups with each of the sub groups of men of color, so that they could glean from the students themselves, what challenges they were facing in higher education and what could be done about it. And, and the fact that this very high powered Community Development Corporation in Detroit was able to sit across the table with the president of Wayne State University and talk about this problem provides a very important entry point for work that they’re doing in the future.

Richard Hara: Okay, so this project was a catalyst for —

Ron Mincy: Yes, exactly.

Richard Hara: — you know, just starting these conversations and getting some degree of cooperation —

Ron Mincy: From the —

Richard Hara: — as far as systems and policies change?

Ron Mincy: Right, exactly. So, we were worried about policy change and, and therefore — and my colleagues in the project, Christine Robinson, who is a long-term foundation executive who I work with 20 years ago when I was at the Ford Foundation, was, was instrumental in, in sort of making the connect between the major foundations that were supporting this at the executive alliance and local foundations who we hope will provide the funding to continue the work that we catalyze. And similarly, my other colleague, Luis Ponjuan, he is a professor at the University of Texas, and this is — higher education is really his specialty. My contribution to the area was, was mainly about the number of men of color who are involved in systems, the criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system, child welfare, and what are the implications of high levels of systems involvement for these young men once they enter higher education. And, and I also provided technical support around the quantitative and qualitative research that each of the sites needed to undertake.

Richard Hara: I believe one of these sites was Oakland, California?

Ron Mincy: Yes.

Richard Hara: And, and they were looking specifically, right, —

Ron Mincy: Right.

Richard Hara: — at the connections between incarceration and —

Ron Mincy: Exactly. So, the other work that I’m very involved in now is post secondary education among formerly incarcerated students. So, I’m working with prisons in New York City in New York State, but also higher education institutions in New York State about what are we going to do when students who have taken college coursework in prison, leave. So, approximately 700,000 prisoners in the United States are, are leaving prisons every day. And in the 19 — mid 1990s, the crime bill essentially shut down programs offering higher education in prison, and it was private philanthropy that funded a lot of the — try to rescue some of these programs. They formerly — offenders are not entitled to receive Pell Grants under current law, and therefore, a lot of the programs that were offering higher education shut down, and it was private philanthropies that tried to fill some of that gap.

Well, now we are, you know, 20 years later, and the number of students who are — who take college coursework in prison has increased over time. But what the early funders didn’t anticipate is that eventually they were going to be released. And so, now we have real critical issues about how do students who’ve taken their initial coursework in prison, how do they get credit for the coursework they’ve taken once they leave? And so, California — Oakland, California, in particular, has very high levels of incarceration. And so, their entire project was focused on formerly incarcerated students. And the primary thing I learned from this was that we have — we’re in a great situation in New York City in New York State because, we don’t have the trout the challenges with transfer agreements that you have in California. We have institutions of higher learning that are willing to take the college courses that students got while they were taking college coursework in other colleges, and accept those as credit when, when students leave. And therefore, students can get credit for the coursework while they were incarcerated and their, their progress toward their associate’s degrees and their bachelor’s degrees are much higher.

In California, because they deal with a county-based criminal justice system and a county-based, and a county-based educational system, California has the highest public education system in the country. But the, the jurisdictions that control the criminal justice system are not the same jurisdictions that control access to public higher education. And so, you can take a course, if you are incarcerated in Oakland, and you go to a college in Oakland in the same county, getting the criminal justice people and the education people together to figure out whether the schools will accept your college coursework is virtually impossible. And so, it helped me to understand again, what — we have to continue to work that problem, and we talk about that in the report, but it also helped me to understand what a privilege we have in New York that we have easy articulation agreements between schools that are offering college coursework in prison and schools that can take these students once they leave. And it’s just motivated me to be — you know, to fast forward the work that’s underway in New York, because we have a real opportunity that other states around the country do not.

Richard Hara: Right. But it doesn’t mean that we can take New York as a model and apply it to other cities, because they have their own local history in, right, —

Ron Mincy: Exactly, right.

Richard Hara: — and the challenges?

Ron Mincy: Right. And that was an important part of the project that we had diversity in terms of the places where we were. And so, we could give foundations and higher education institutions and other stakeholders in this work examples on which they could build that and match their local situation, because it was very clear that this idea that one size fits all is not applicable to this, to this particular challenge.

Richard Hara: Absolutely. Well, we have some questions from our audience that we can turn to now. When you speak of men of color, do you include Native Americans? How do your findings apply to all minorities?

Ron Mincy: Well, yes, we do include — we did include Native American students in many of our sites, they were — particularly in Arkansas and in Detroit, interestingly, many of the students that we work with were Native American students and Asian students. So, this is a broad definition of men of color. And I think the critical thing, so, I’ve worked in work on fatherhood in Native American populations. And, and one of the things I learned as a consequence of the work is that their challenges are fundamentally different. They — it is the case, however, that they to tend to — those who go on to college tend to be first generation college students. And so, what — this is why part of the reason why we sort of provided technical assistance, not only in the quantitative analysis of what students were going through, but also in qualitative analysis, because we wanted the sites to be able to work with the students who were, who were experiencing these challenges and get from the students their understanding of their challenges with, with the higher education, so that the solutions that they derive could be population specific.

Richard Hara: So, recognizing, responding to the voices and needs —

Ron Mincy: That’s right. It was a very inclusive project. They were —

Richard Hara: Different men of color?

Ron Mincy: They were different men of color. They were gay and lesbian. They were gays — gay students in the population who have their own challenges in higher education. And we wanted to make sure that we addressed, you know, the full diversity of the students we were trying to work with.

Richard Hara: Right. Is there a research on best practices for recruiting young men of color in college access programs?

Ron Mincy: I’m not so clear in the recruiting portion of it, because in United States, there is a growth in, what we call, open access of colleges because, many people are going to school sort of long after their 20s. And therefore, we’ve adapted in the United States to particularly two-year colleges, in which we’re recruiting wide — a wide variety of students into the college campus and plus people realize that they need higher education. The challenge is, once they’re admitted, how do you, for example, our colleges offering courses in the evenings and on Saturdays, because many of these men work during the day, and they’re unable to attend college classes if they’re only offered a Thursday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. And so, the challenges have more to — not, not to do with recruitment, but what sorts of systems do colleges establish, that in — that accommodate the needs of the students of color that we’re, that we’re working with? So, for example, in California, and this sort of blew my mind, many of this male students of color with whom we were working in California are homeless, because the price of housing in California — in, in Oakland is so expensive that, that many of the students are homeless, they are doubled up. And, and it’s very difficult to imagine what going to school is like when you don’t have a place to live, when you don’t have a secure place to study. And this is a similar thing with formerly incarcerated students who face their own sorts of challenges.

Richard Hara: Okay, all right. Going back to your study and thinking about the six different sites, so we’ve mentioned Oakland, Little Rock you said, Detroit?

Ron Mincy: Little Rock, Arkansas; Detroit, Michigan; Oakland, California; Los Angeles, California; Newark, New Jersey; and, and Buffalo, New York —

Richard Hara: And Buffalo, New York.

Ron Mincy: — those, those were the six.

Richard Hara: So, how were they chosen or —

Ron Mincy: They were chosen through a competitive process, but, but part of the, the process was again, we were doing this through the Executive Alliance for — with — for higher education. And they already work with a community of foundations that is interested in this working with men and, men and boys of color. And so, they also encouraged the local nonprofit organizations with whom that they normally fund for other things to be engaged in this process.

Richard Hara: So, leveraging existing networks, yeah.

Ron Mincy: Leveraging the existing — I mean, I used to work in the foundation community and I understand that you form relationships with organizations that have capacity, but organizations that can deliver, and they, and they try to identify which organizations were already in their grant portfolios that they had relationships with, that had an interest and capacity to work on this topic, and then encourage them to submit the proposals and the process move forward. And, and hopefully, again, we’re meeting again in November to work with each of these six sites in order to identify local funders that would help these sites continue the work that they began in the PSS project.

Richard Hara: So, was there anything — and I know data is still coming in, and, and the final analyses aren’t, aren’t completed, but something that surprised you, you know, as a result of this study?

Ron Mincy: I, I, I guess the thing that surprised me, which should not have surprised me, but that here it is. That often students of — male students of color, because of the financial responsibilities that they have, are spending their financial aid in supporting the needs of their families, and, and they’re also spending their financial aid on lots of developmental coursework for which they get no college credit.

Richard Hara: What’s developmental coursework?

Ron Mincy: A developmental coursework, I was in the Child Welfare System when I — from eight years old to 16 years old, and therefore, I don’t have a strong math background. I leave high school without a strong math background, and therefore, before I can take any college course, any coursework in math in college for which I get credit, I have to take algebra, geometry and like, at the high school level that’s offered by the college that I attend. So, the college gives me that coursework in order to prepare me to take college level math —

Richard Hara: That takes time —

Ron Mincy: — I spend my financial aid, and so, I deplete my financial aid. And by the time I’m ready to take the college coursework, I’ve depleted 60% of the financial aid I have. And that happens in math, it happens in English, it happens in science. And so, one of the things that really has to happen in this field is that colleges have, have, have got to figure out how to build in simultaneously developmental education courses and courses that for which college credit is offered, so that students can, at the same time, acquire the skills that they need, but take the college — take the courses for which they will get college credit, which means that they are more likely to graduate on time and have some money left by the time they reach their senior year. So, this was like, you know, people who are higher education experts understand this, but other stakeholders in this field who are trying to get men of color through college have — are clueless about how financial aid is operating.

Richard Hara: And it seems like a good idea, right? —

Ron Mincy: Yeah, no its —

Richard Hara: — You know, developmental support academic, yeah. But it’s in the actual —

Ron Mincy: And so, so, one of the things that we did in Detroit is, why can’t some of these developmental education courses be offered by staff in the Community Development Corporation, so that you take that responsibility off of the college and as a result, the students can get the developmental education they need, but their tuition isn’t burned up in order to do that. And this is something that a local foundation could fund, right? And so, these are the strategies that we began to think through and —

Richard Hara: Creative solutions, yeah.

Ron Mincy: — and again, you couldn’t get there unless we were in the weeds in each of the sites, trying to understand what are the barriers that these students face and how can a community of stakeholders, not just the institutions of higher education, work to resolve these things.

Richard Hara: Tremendous opportunities. Dr. Mincy, you said that when you were in college, you didn’t trust anyone to help you with a Plan B after your Plan A, which was engineering failed. What kind of person could have helped you? Would you have preferred to find another man of color or professor or administrator?

Ron Mincy: So, I’ve misspoke, I did. We had a — we had an African-American counselor who is a male, his name — I’m blanking on his last name, because this was 40 years ago. And ultimately, I was able to sit down with him and talk about the, the barrier that I hit in my physics course, and what Plan B was all about, but it took me a very long time to do that. And a couple of weeks ago, interestingly, I read that first generation college students on Harvard’s campus, which is where I went as an undergraduate, have now begun to establish these things, these, these sorts of support groups as a regular institution within for, for first generation college students who have little background in what college is all about, and established places where they can go to get this kind of advice. But for me, it was a sort of — I happen to find this person and he was able to give me the help, help that I needed after a long time. But in many college campuses, this sort of support doesn’t really exist. And what we’re trying to do is to figure out, well, one of the things that schools may have to do is to increase the proportion of men of color who are administrators in higher education, who are faculty members in higher education, so that that can occur. And also, you can have proximal mentors. Upperclassmen who are men of color can be available to lowerclassmen when they hit these sorts of challenges, so that they can support them in getting through, so that these students don’t feel so isolated and, and don’t understand — and where they can go to get the support. When you arrive on the college campus, where is the Writing Center? Where is the, where is the math lab? Where is the tutoring? And then, these are to be part of the orientation package that students — men’s — male students of color receive when they arrive on the college campus, so that they know where these resources are when they need them.

Richard Hara: Okay. All right. Two final questions. How can all of us watching support men of color in the university more in our day to day interactions?

Ron Mincy: So, my colleague Luis Ponjuan, he posed this question to the, to the, to the group when we met in October of 2018, and we all sort of provided our ill-informed answers. And what his response was, get to know their names. In other words, how can I interact with a person to provide their support unless I become interested in who they are? And so, what, what he began to talk about was a very simple solution that you begin to form personal relationships with, with male students of color, understanding that they may arrive on the college campus and feel very, very isolated. And so, his, his step one was, get to know their names, so that when they encounter a challenge, that student will remember that there was someone who, who was sufficiently locked into who I was to ask me my name, know who I was, know something about my background, such that when I got into trouble, I may not know where the right place to go was, but I could start with that person.

Richard Hara: Just to demonstrate, yeah.

Ron Mincy: And so, in the, in the three seconds I have, that’s the advice I will offer.

Richard Hara: It’s important advice. Have you come across any post secondary institutions that have implemented policies, programs that serve as a model for best practices?

Ron Mincy: The one thing that we did was to destroy this idea that there was some model that could be followed. What we clearly learned in going through our six sites was, there is no magic bullet for this that, that — what we needed to do was to — and what, in the replication of this effort that communities need to form these collaborations of institutions of higher education who are able to look into your local populations and see the lack of success that is occurring among men of color. And then they need to work with other institutions that have access to them in their communities, form these collaborations and then have — do the homework within to understand again, what are the challenges that students face as they move through and to do the work without namely to get to the students themselves, so that the students can describe the challenges that they’re facing. And then use that data to, to, to, to arrive at a plan for going forward, and then implement that plan, learn from the progress or lack thereof that is occurring and move forward. And I think the, the idea that there is some magic bullet — there’s such diversity out there really undermines the idea that there’s one place that we can go to figure out how to do this.

Richard Hara: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, thank you again, Dr. Mincy, for joining us here today —

Ron Mincy: Thank you so much for having me.

Richard Hara: — at Social Impact LIVE. That concludes today’s episode. We will be joined next week by CSSW faculty member, Allen Zweben, to discuss his work on motivational interviewing and the second edition of his book, “Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals.” So, have a great week. See you all next time. Bye.

Ron Mincy: Thank you.