The Reality of College “Fit”: Options are Limited for Young Men of Color

When using SATs, ACTs to forecast student success is too rigid a strategy

The common understanding of college “fit” is analogous to shoe shopping. Students are supposed to look for an institution that suits their academic, social and cultural dimensions. Accordingly, wide-eyed students visit a variety of colleges in an attempt to try on an institution to see if it’s a good fit. It’s assumed the right fit accelerates the speed at which you reach graduation.

Apparently, college campuses provide limited sizes for men of color.

The U.S. Department of Education found markedly lower four-year graduation rates for blacks and Latino men (33.2 percent and 44.8 percent, respectively) compared with their white and Asian peers (57.1 percent and 64.2 percent, respectively). American Indian four-year rates hover around 40 percent.

Lee Hampton, Jackson College’s director of multicultural affairs, speaks with a University of Michigan graduate student.

Lee Hampton, Jackson College’s director of multicultural affairs, speaks with a University of Michigan graduate student.

In reality, the college, not the student, usually determines if the fit is desirable.

Related: Colleges ratchet up recruiting of applicants just to turn them down

Colleges use of academic and financial information to gauge a student’s potential is pretty much standard. Contrarily, student services and faculty interaction are anything but. Quality based on inclusion is almost always discounted (about the only thing discounted on campus). In addition, more states are using performance based budgeting formulas, which often try to align students’ incoming academic information with institutional type. These practices reinforce shoe-shopping notions of college fit.

Yes, academic preparation and socioeconomic backgrounds matter with regard to students’ success. Yet there are limits to rigidly using standardized tests to forecast success. Research has long shown that academic preparedness accounts for a small part of why students graduate.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently released a research report that showed students with strong high school GPAs and low standardized-test scores generally performed well in college, while students with low high school GPAs and high test scores generally performed poorly.

Related: Debunking one myth about U.S. teachers

Antiquated notions of the achievement gap, college fit and preparation reinforce the flimsy view that men of color aren’t keeping pace. Still, administrators and researchers promote these precarious concepts through their usage.

An aside: Aren’t colleges and universities touted as being the great equalizer? Aren’t postsecondary institutions entrusted with tax dollars to increase social mobility? Consequently, when we think of preparation, we should ask what are institutions bringing to the table to enroll and graduate people of different social spheres.

Colleges and universities are not keeping pace with black and brown students’ needs, and it’s passed time that colleges and universities walked in our shoes.

However, some educational leaders are using data to prepare for men of color.

College administrators at Jackson College in Jackson, Michigan are using an assessment tool they call the missing link, which measures non-academic factors among black men to improve institutional conditions that influence graduation. The assessments are given after students arrive on campus “to effectively implement existing or developed strategies to enhance the engagement and academic outcomes of the African American male student population.”

Related: President weighs in with plan for free community college

The Office of Multicultural Affairs, through their admissions office, identifies men of color. Black male students are invited to respond to a battery of questions, which examine their life stability and strength of support system; family and cultural context; students’ understanding of college preparedness as well as their personal commitment to educational pursuits.

Depending on the results from the assessment, Jackson’s multicultural affairs office orchestrates a response that can include academic enrichment and/or mentoring. Students also can be recommended for student leadership positions on campus.

Eighty miles west of Detroit, Jackson College is an open enrollment community college, which eliminates the practice of improvement through selectivity. Like many open enrollment institutions, Jackson College must create strategies to matriculate students regardless of their background.

Related: The real reasons many low-income students don’t go to college

“In order to better serve African American men in higher education, a broader more holistic understanding of each student is needed,” said Lee Hampton, director of multicultural affairs at Jackson College, adding, “Our assessment allows us to serve them in the most strategic and responsive way we can.”

Skeptics may say that student alert systems, mentoring programs and leadership placement are nothing new. However, prioritizing black men can seem like a radical act. Many universities are skittish of focusing on black, brown and native men for fears of violating bans on using race to ensure inclusion. But blanket diversity and/or race neutral alternatives often obscure the specific ethnic and racial groups that need inclusion and support.

You simply can’t be afraid to demand a focus on black men when you’re in a county where the population is 20 percent black and you’re a little more than an hour away from Detroit.

Colleges and universities can’t abdicate their responsibilities to accommodate men and boys of color by primarily looking at students’ incoming academic and financial backgrounds. At some point, colleges and universities must be held accountable for graduating men of color. At some point, colleges must look internally as to why their institutions don’t graduate all members of our communities.

Colleges should fit themselves around black and brown students’ needs – not the other way around.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).