Like other technical colleges, Greenville Tech is uniquely positioned to positively affect the futures of students and their families over generations by providing access to college degrees. But if students can’t stay the course, they miss out on the benefits. Last year, GTC President Dr. Keith Miller, created the “President’s Commission on Persistence and Retention” to address the urgent issue of keeping students in class.
The commission started by comparing two measures among different demographic groups and the college at large: Persistence — the percentage of students who enroll one fall semester who either re-enroll the following spring semester or graduate; and retention — the percentage of students who enroll one fall semester who either re-enroll the following fall semester or graduate.
“What we learned when we looked at the data is that African-American males were coming in at the bottom of every category—10 points lower than the college rate of retention,” said Dr. Alecia Watt, director of educational opportunity programs. “What’s happening is they’re coming to school and dropping out. It became very clear that something special was going to have to happen to get them at the level of the rest of the college, let alone improve rates overall.”
In November 2018, when the team explored possible causes for this disparity with a focus group of 10 African American male students, several themes emerged. First, the men expressed missing out on a sense of belonging, and a desire to find other African American men to bond with.
“They’re a very small percentage of the GTC population, so when you walk through, you aren’t seeing a lot of people who look like you. You may be the only African American male in your class,” Watt said. “We knew that one component of the program would be to establish a brotherhood accountable to each other, a partner system to keep them on track.”
Another common theme was stereotype threat, defined as the fear of confirming what you believe other people think about your group. Watt gave the example of a young man who was struggling in a math class, but hesitated to ask questions.
“One of the advantages students have at GTC is small class size, so they can feel more comfortable establishing relationships with instructors. But this student would not raise his hand. He signed up for a tutor, who told him, ‘You should have learned this in high school.’ He never went back,” Watt said.
To address these issues, and improve engagement among this population, GTC this fall launched the African American Male Scholars Initiative. The program is modeled after City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, an evidence-based program that has demonstrated progress since its inception in 2007.
GTC’s inaugural class of 100 students underwent a comprehensive needs assessment with questions about housing, transportation, substance abuse, disabilities, medical and other issues, so they can be connected with local resources. Two academic coordinators provide intensive academic advising and weekly monitoring of course performance to head off academic issues before they become insurmountable. Other services include financial advising, college tours, book scholarships, and cultural activities.
“The college has connections in the community with so many great organizations that can help them get the supports they need,” Watt said. “We’ve also established a partnership with the Greenville SC Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. to help connect them with successful African American men in the community, so they can see someone who looks like them who made it.”
Community support also made the launch of the program possible, said Ann Wright, vice president for advancement for the Greenville Tech Foundation, which contributed, along with the Graham Foundation, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, United Way of Greenville County, the Community Foundation of Greenville and others.
“We are hopeful this initiative can be scaled up to help more students,” Wright said. “If we can help these students succeed, it will impact their future employment, income, and the economic mobility of their family.”