Student Retention Of African-American Males In Adult Education

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Why do African American male college students persist less than others? Does it depend on individual behaviors or characteristics? Or does it depend more on certain institutional factors? Little has been published on the subject of African American male retention. This paper reviews present literature on the observations and empirical studies related to low student retention rates among Black male students. Low retention rates among Black male students have been plaguing post-secondary education for decades. As students, they encounter demographic and socioeconomic barriers that hinder their academic achievement. They are less likely to persist in college due to inadequate high school preparation, lower GPA, low parental education, and lower motivation rates. However, this paper argues that institutional factors such as campus climate, peer interaction, and faculty involvement are better predictors of retention than non-institutional variables. How can retention rates of African American males in a community college be improved? A mixed methods study is proposed to study the role of institutional factors in promoting student retention. It is posited that strong leadership and a supportive academic environment are key factors in successfully improving graduation rates among African American male students.

Keywords: Retention/ Minority students/ Adult education


Low retention rates among African-American male students have been plaguing post-secondary education for decades. As students, they encounter demographic and socioeconomic barriers that hinder their academic achievement. They are less likely to persist in college due to inadequate high school preparation, lower GPA, low parental education, and lower motivation rates (Astin, Tsui, & Avalos, 1996). Nationally and locally, student retention is even lower for African-American male students than their White or Asian classmates. Even though colleges continues to spend money on a variety of programs to help retain students until they attain their academic and personal goals, retention, recruitment, and graduation figures of African-American males remain dismally below the average. Even in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the retention rate of African-American male students lag their female counterparts. In 2004, African American females comprised 59.3% of students attending four-year HBCU institutions compared to 40.7 % for males (JBHE, 2007). Some opine that most higher education institutions perform a mediocre job of providing meaningful and motivational undergraduate experiences for African-American males (Lee, 1999; Nora & Cabrera, 1996).

The observable scarcity of African-American males in colleges and universities poses a worrying trend for higher education (Strayhorn, 2008). Their underrepresentation not only in enrolment but in graduation highlights an education gap that has significant political and economic implications. African-American men aged 18 to 24 years old constitute 7.9 of the total population but only 2.8 percent of them are located in flagship universities. If not successfully addressed, this education gap is likely to reproduce African-American men situated in low-paying jobs with earning power significantly lower than that of their white counterparts. Moreover, high attrition rates pose a great loss for institutions in the form of tuition income and failure to deliver services as mandated by their educational mission (Lau, 2003). Therefore, it is vital the educational institutions seek ways to improve retention rates for all students but especially African-American males.

Why do African American male college students persist less than others? Does it depend on individual behaviors or characteristics? Or does it depend more on certain institutional factors? The central question that this paper wishes to address is: What can be done to increase the retention rate of African Americans, more specifically of African-American adult males in community colleges? First of all, the sources of the insights used in this paper are discussed. Addressed are the following specific questions:

How do African American males compare to other gender and racial groups in terms of student retention?

What non-institutional factors contribute to their low student retention?

What institutional factors contribute to their low student retention?

Literature Review

1. Student retention

Studies in retention are complex, incohesive, and incomplete (Nettles, 1988; Hagedorn, 2004). Defining the word retention is difficult in itself because it is highly contextual and relative (Hagedorn, 2004). Sometimes, the word is used interchangeably with persistence. Nonetheless, for the purpose of educational research and policy-making, The National Center for Education Statistics defines retention as an institutional measure and persistence as a student measure.

Studies that have focused on the academic outcomes of African American males are divided into two schools of thought. One school emphasizes on the role of individual characteristics (cognitive) and pre-college variables (non-cognitive) to determine academic success. Cognitive variables refer to those which measure an individual's intellectual ability usually described in score, rank, or range (Johnson, 1993). This includes variables such as high school GPA, placement scores, or test scores. On the other hand, non-cognitive variables refer to a person's psychosocial and affective constructs such as one's attitudes, aspirations, motivations, and feelings (Johnson, 1993; Strayhorn, 2008). To date, empirical work on student retention has relied upon two dominant sociological theories (Tinto, 1993; Astin, 1999).

Tinto's (1993) student integration model. Tinto's student integration model presupposes that student departure from postsecondary education is caused by three major sources. In his "Model of Institutional Departure," Tinto stated that persistence requires students to be integrated into formal and informal systems in the social and academic realms. Formal academic systems include academic performance while informal academic systems include faculty and staff interactions. Formal social systems include extracurricular activities while informal social systems include peer interactions. A student who cannot resolve or effectively incorporate into the social and intellectual life of a postsecondary institution is likely to drop out. Sources of departure then include 1) failure of students to address occupational and educational priorities, 2) having difficulty with academic courses or requirements, and 3) failure to assimilate into the institution.

Tinto's model however was formulated in the context of residential four-year higher education institutions - which may fail to account for the unique cultural or academic milieu in a community college (Thomas, 1990). Tinto also emphasizes more on student characteristics and social interaction prior to entry into the institution. This does not explain for instance the role of a strong study ethic or goal orientation which differentiates adult students from students in a four-year institution. Kember (1990) also stresses a point when she stated that adult students also have family concerns when they attempt to finish postsecondary degrees. Nonetheless, despite these perceived weaknesses in Tinto's student integration model, it provides a framework which can be used to build a modified theoretical model to reflect the retention statistics and patterns in adult education programs.

Astin's Student Involvement Theory. Another influential theoretical model to explain student persistence is Astin's (1999) student involvement theory. This theory presupposes that the factors leading to student development in higher education is analogous to factors which influence attrition rates. Astin posited that student success is dependent on his or her involvement in the institution. Moreover, the level of personal development the student experiences as a result of the college education and the effectiveness of institutional leadership and practices are correlated with student involvement. Astin defined student involvement to be involvement with the complete learning process in the higher education setting. A student who is deeply involved invests ample amount of energy and effort in academic tasks as well as formal academic engagements. How much energy a student invests in such activities varies according to the interests, aspirations, and commitment of the student. While Tinto highlights social interaction, Astin focuses on the role of faculty interaction. In explaining student attrition rates, Astin (1999) posited that instructors must be aware of a student's motivation and commitment to academic work and other interests to be able to assist effectively in the learning process (Hunter, 2003). As a result of Astin's work, academic practitioners have developed various pedagogical strategies to promote student involvement, such as increase in student-faculty contact, active learning, respect for diversity of talents and learning methods, fostering student cooperation, and prompt feedback mechanisms (Chickering & Gamson, 1991).

Astin's theoretical model is consistent with findings that the faculty has a crucial role in adult education (Crane, 1985). For instance, in distance education, students rate faculty interaction as more important that social interaction with other students (Hezel & Dirr, 1990). In two-year urban community college, faculty interaction was found to be highly valued and the degree of faculty contact depends upon positive perception about the institution and its faculty (Chang, 2007). Moreover, students in a community college also perceive institutional factors such as climate and faculty interaction as important (Nora & Cabrera, 1996).

2. Student retention rates of African American males in postsecondary education

Community colleges designed for adult education are limited in terms of empirical work on student retention or persistence. More specifically, factors which influence the overall persistence of adult students in community colleges is rarely researched. From what has been discussed, current attrition and retention theories do not figure the particularities and unique academic experiences of African American adult males. In addition, most studies have been quantitative in nature. Tinto (1994) and Astin (1999) have based their premises in the context of experiences in four-year HBCUs and predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Without the sufficient insight, researchers will be unable to develop a theoretical framework and identify predictors that influence many of the African American students' decisions to leave colleges and universities, specifically community colleges.

What we do know about student retention rate among African American males is that it still remains a problem. The Journal for Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE) records that during the 2006-2007 academic year, graduation rates of African Americans in general was 43%, 20 points lower than their white counterparts with a rate of 63%. Black women also persisted more than Black men. The same report indicated that since 1990, black women's graduation rate in degree-granting institutions improved from 34% to 37% in 2006 while black men gained only an 8 point increase from 28% to 36% (JBHE, 2007).

The predominant body of literature on higher education reveals that retention is caused by a confluence of factors, for instance, both cognitive and non-cognitive variables may contribute to retention and academic success among African-American males (Hagedorn et al., 2001; Tinto, 2006-2007). Cognitive variables such as test scores, high school GPA, and parent's educational level have been shown to be correlated to academic success. Research suggests that indicators, such as high school grade point average, test scores, parental education level, and a positive self-efficacy, are correlated to the success of African American males in higher education (Lee, 1999). A growing body of literature has also explored the role of institutional characteristics in influencing retention and success among African American males (Corbin & Ajamu, 2000). Lack of institutional support is said to be a significant predictor of academic success among African-American males (Astin, 1999). Factors such as active recruitment, favorable student climate, presence of mentoring programs, flexibility of admission requirements, and availability of sound financial packages have been found to be correlated to enrolment, retention, and graduation of African American students (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Gross, Hossler, & Ziskin, 2007). The study made by Terenzini and Wright (1987) demonstrates the multi-faceted explanation for student retention (Table 1).

Table 1. Factors leading to poor student development and academic achievement among African-American students (Terenzini and Wright, 1987)

Six-factor theory on student development of African-American students

1. Active recruitment

2. Flexibility of admission requirements

3. Availability of sound financial aid packages

4. Favorable institutional climate

5. Mentoring programs

6. Attitudes of the African American students

3. Non-institutional (personal and demographic) variables affecting student retention

The earliest empirical studies which attempted to explain student retention focused on personal variables or factors outside the institution (Bettinger, 2004; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1983). Factors influencing student development were considered synonymous to those influenced attrition. For instance, Astin (1999) found that the following factors influenced academic success as well student attrition: (1) Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, (2) high school class rank, (3) socioeconomic background, (4) high school curriculum, (5) parents' education level, and (6) family income level. Other personal variables associated with academic achievement were autonomy, maturity, and independence of the student (Bettinger, 2004). Other studies however contradicted the finding that psychological variables affected academic achievement. A study by Allen, Epps, and Haniff (1991, as cited in Monk, 1998) found that African American males who were mature and independent did not succeed academically in college.

In terms of aspirations, culture did not seem to be associated with student achievement. Ogbu (1971, as cited in Monk, 1998) found that poor academic performance is not significantly related with level of aspiration. This was echoed by Graham (1994) when it was found that even if Black students had higher aspirations than White students. Hence, aspiration does not seem to adequately explain why more Black students fail in college than White students.

There is increasing dissatisfaction with studies suggesting that personal cognitive and non-cognitive variables can adequately explain attrition rates or student persistence (Lang, 1992; Nettles, 1988). Lang (1992) concluded in her study of attrition rates in Black students that institutional characteristics unique to the college can be the cause of high attrition. Moreover, socioeconomic factors also figure prominently in the student attrition phenomenon. This how points to the increasing significance of institutional factors on the attrition of Black students after college enrollment (Lang, 1992). Carroll (1988, as cited in Monk, 1998) that both student characteristics and institutional characteristics must be integrated to predict academic outcomes. Her study also found that three major variables were correlated with student outcomes: two were institutional variables (counselor effectiveness, peer interaction) and one was a personal non-cognitive variable (highest degree expected).

4. Institutional variables affecting student retention

Several studies have found that institutional characteristics influence retention and academic success among African American males. These studies were spurred by the disproportionately lower success rate of African American males in predominantly White institutions compared to students enrolled in HBCUs (Nettles, 1988). Davis (1994) inferred that this disparity may be attribute more to the perceptions that African American male students have on their sense of connectedness and belonging to a college. For instance, African American male students reported greater support from HBCUs and perceive a greater level of connectedness to Black institutions in terms of student involvement, perceptions on campus climate, faculty interaction, and peer interaction (Davis, 1994). Allen and Jewell (2002) on the other hand, found that male students enrolled in predominantly White institutions perceive a more competitive, even adversarial campus climate and reported feeling discrimination, alienation, unfair treatment, racism, and devaluation of academic ability. While this may not be the result of a deliberate institutional policy to alienate African American males, the culturally embedded practices and norms already prevalent in predominantly White institutions may account for feelings of isolation and may lead to underachievement (Nora & Cabrera, 1996).

Campus climate. Campus climate or culture is an important predictor of college success. Culture is one factor that varies from person to person and a lot of diversity can be seen on campuses. The multicultural environment in campuses today is bound to produce a clash of culture. The two cultures are their own culture and the institution's culture. Culture is what is attributed to eventually lead to behavior (Lee, 1999). Institutions like people also have a culture. Institutions carry cultures that make them unique and distinguishable from other institutions. Culture in this context refers to the body of assumptions developed by a group as a coping mechanism and taught to new members (Roueche, Baker, & Rose, 1989). Despite the concepts of collegiality and community being introduced in the campuses, the competitive culture still overwhelms African American males, which could lead to feelings of isolation (Strayhorn, 2008). This may then lead to marginalization and uncertainty (Lee, 1999). African-American males are found to thrive in campuses where there is a favorable racial climate (JBHE, 2007).

Nora and Cabrera (1996) hypothesized that racial minorities were more likely to perceive discrimination and racial bias among students and faculty. While their study also found that perceptions of racial discrimination did not significantly affect their academic performance, such feelings of isolation and prejudice make it more difficult for African American students to become acclimated to the campus environment. In PWIs, racial stereotypes provide an unwelcome climate for Black students, leading to social and academic isolation (Mow & Nettles, 1990), as cited in Strayhorn, 2008). Perceptions of racial bias and negative experiences are higher in African-American students than any other minority racial group (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000). Most of them perceived to be excluded from mainstream academic life, financial aid packages, and academic networks which they viewed as more accessible to their White counterparts. To this end, African-American students consider themselves "invisible" (Ancis, Sedlacek, & Mohr, 2000). Moreover, Black students face tremendous pressure and spend more time asserting their credibility on campus (Fries-Britt, & Turner, 2001, as cited in Strayhorn, 2008).

Student involvement. Another significant factor in student retention is positive peer interaction or the interpersonal element of college life (Bourne-Bowie, 2000). Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) opined that a student's adjustment to the college experience takes at least one full year. When students meet other students for socialization and academic integration, this is helpful in adapting to the new campus environment. Yet, sometimes the process of social integration comes at the cost of academic integration - which is a dilemma for many African American students. Astin (1999) also emphasized the importance of student involvement in relation to completion rates among African American males. Student involvement refers to the investment a student commits in studying, participation in campus organizations, and level of peer interaction. To this end, Astin (1999) recommended that institutions must develop initiatives or programs to heighten student involvement and promote greater student connection. Dabney (2010) also recommended the use of leadership development in providing greater social support for African American males. Leadership development helps engage African American males with the academic rigor required in postsecondary education. He viewed leadership development as an importance mechanism to ensure college success.

Student-faculty interaction. Moreover, African American males' interaction with faculty is also important element in the college experience. Interaction between faculty members and freshmen creates a bond that will most likely lead to a successful academic relationship between the two (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Student-faculty relationships not only create rapport and ease the difficulty of acculturation and adaptation, it also provides academic support. Astin (1999) reported that frequent interaction between student and faculty develops more positive perceptions about the institution and the whole college experience. Faculty relationships are considered vital components in assisting African-American students in achieving academic success. Faculty relationships were found to be correlated with student satisfaction, retention, and academic achievement (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). However, the benefits of strong faculty-student interaction are out of reach to some Black students. African-American students noted the unprecedented absence of faculty relationships due to a lack of quality time spent in and outside the classroom (Lang, 1992).

There are two explanations on why African American male students tend to have less interaction with faculty members. The first view is that it is a matter of perception and not an intentional institutional practice (Davis, 1994; Dawson-Threat, 1997). The other view is that White faculty members which comprise majority of the faculty population deliberately interact less with Black students than they do with White students (Mingle, 1987, as cited in Corbin & Ajamun, 2000). In addition, White faculty members expect Black students to meet the same intellectual standards as White students and are less inclined to have their teaching strategies and practices adapt to the needs of less academically prepared Black students. This has called other researchers to recommend increasing the population of Black faculty members to allow for greater faculty-student interaction among Black students (Kobrak, 1992). However, even the presence of Black faculty members and mentors has not been sufficient in retaining Black students. Corbin and Ajamun (2000) revealed that Black faculty often find themselves struggling to help Black students and experience stress. Like Black students, Black faculty members also perceive a degree of isolation in themselves because there is resistance from Black students to accept suggestions or respond to recommendations. Corbin and Ajamun (2000) suggested that Black faculty act as role models and encourage Black students break the cycle of isolation and marginalization by helping them become more competitive or in more or less equal footing academically with other students.

Based on the pre-study literature review conducted, it is proposed that non-institutional and institutional characteristics be integrated in this attempted to explain low student retention in adult education, specifically in community colleges. The variables under consideration for this study are tabulated.

Table 2. Factors that Contribute to the High Attrition Rate of African-American Students Attending Predominately White Institutions (Holmes et al., 2001; Nora & Cabrera, 1996)

Non-institutional characteristics

Institutional characteristics

Deficient academic preparation

Low social integration

Low aspiration

Insufficient financial resources

Family concerns or pressures

Low parental education

Low institutional loyalty

Lack of faculty interaction

Lack of peer interaction

Racial stereotypes

Lack of minority role models

Lack of student involvement

Conclusion and Recommendations

In this academic paper, student retention among African-American males and its explanations have been described and discussed. Despite many efforts by leaders in higher education and with the considerable gains of policies seeking to promote racial equality in the field of postsecondary education, many African-American male students still depart college. We Various theoretical models and explanations have been discussed to account for this phenomenon. Factors that play a role are both non-institutional and institutional in nature. The literature has shown that not only personal cognitive and non-cognitive characteristics of students influence student retention, but also demographic characteristics and variables inside the institution itself. The limitations in the current literature include:

1. An overemphasis on quantitative studies;

2. A lack of emphasis on institutional variables as a dependent variable;

3. Lack of studies focusing on student retention in the context of adult education.

To fill this gap, it is recommended that student retention among African American adult males enrolled in community college be examined. Developing a policy beneficial to adult education programs will be favorable in further closing the equity gap in higher education.

A mixed methods approach is selected, incorporating quantitative data and qualitative methods particularly a case study design. Three types of data will be gathered, namely: 1) secondary data from entry questionnaires, 2) data from survey questionnaires, and 3) data from a focus group discussion. Quantitative and qualitative analysis will be used. Descriptive statistics, correlation and multiple regressions will analyze the predictive ability of institutional and non-institutional variables on student retention. Qualitative content analysis will provide support and verification of the quantitative data by analyzing the common themes and patterns which will emerge out of the interviews.