MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now we'd like to talk about higher education. Attending college or sending your child to one is a big part of the American dream. But for many people, that dream may not look like it does in the movies where the students are strolling between ivy-covered buildings or cheering on their teams at a big state university. For millions of students in this country, the gateway to college is the community college - affordable, accessible, often open enrollment. But a new report says these colleges are still not effectively serving many men of color. And if they don't figure out how to do that, these colleges will not serve the mission for which they were intended. This report is from the Center for Community College Student Engagement. And we wanted to learn more, so we've called upon Gail Mellow. She is the president of LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us once again.
GAIL MELLOW: It's great to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: Now this report found that black males and Latinos report having higher aspirations to earn a community college certificate or degree than their white peers, but only 5 percent of black males and Latinos attending these colleges earn certificates or degrees within three years, as opposed to 32 percent of white males. Is that surprising to you?
MELLOW: Unfortunately, it's not surprising for two reasons. One I think is a complex reason of race and family and aspiration and support. But I'll put the practical one up first, which is that black and Latino males tend to be poorer and therefore can't go to college full-time. So overwhelmingly, these young men - young men and in their 20's and 30's that go to community colleges are working, often working full-time when they attend college.
MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about your experience. And one of the reasons that we called you is that LaGuardia has a pretty strong track record when it comes to serving these students. And I just wanted to ask, what are some of the interventions that you have been able to adopt that you think have made a difference?
MELLOW: Well, I'll start out by telling you a story of Tyrone who was a young guy. He's actually now a student at Morehouse, which is a historically black college down in Atlanta. But Tyrone dropped out of high school. He went and got a job working on cars when he began to come into his own in his 20's, and he decided, I think I can go to college. And I love his story because he came to a college bookstore. He started looking through our books and decided, oh, yeah, I like math. There seems to be a lot of math in these accounting books. So he enrolled at LaGuardia in accounting, and after his first test in accounting, his professor was waiting for him outside the door.
And Tyrone said, I was so sure that that white professor was going to say to me, I bet you were cheating or - and he had - he said he had all of his bristles out. And instead, the professor said, have you had accounting before? Tyrone said, no. And the professor said, this is the highest level of achievement I've ever seen in a first-time accounting student. And Tyrone's career leapt. And I think it shows you two things. It shows you the power of an individual faculty member connecting with a student, but it also shows what Tyrone expected. If a faculty member is waiting for me outside the door, something bad is going to happen. They think I've done something bad. They're going to falsely accuse me. And I think that's the challenge these African-American and Latino men face as they enter college.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about what happens before any of these young people do get to college. I mean, it indicates - this report suggests that college readiness also plays a role. It says that while 53 percent of white men met the ACT College Readiness standards in math, 30 percent of Latinos do and only 14 percent of black males do. So what does that mean for the students when they walk in the door?
MELLOW: They walk in to a big gap. And if a college doesn't take seriously our responsibility to make sure those students feel engaged and connected and to have hope, they're not going to make it. Making a connection with peers who have the same issues, but also the same aspirations as you, can really make a difference in these young men's lives.
MARTIN: But, you know what - one of the other things I wanted to ask you about is that we often talk about college completion and how that connects to family responsibilities, right. So - but often people think that that has to do with women. And I notice that when it comes to enrollment, LaGuardia is similar to other community colleges in that there are more women than men. Well, a lot of women attending community college do have family responsibilities - so why is it that their completion rate is still higher?
MELLOW: Well, in some ways perhaps it's this issue of can I do it and do I have to do it. I mean, at LaGuardia we have a program, we call it the Fatherhood Academy. And these are primarily African-American and Latino males, and most of them have dropped out of high school, but they do have a kid. And we found that in some ways, the child is the way into aspirations. The ability to say, look, you might not have had a father, you might not have had a man in your life who really cared about you, but you can be that person to your child.
MARTIN: But why is it, though, that equally qualified white, African-American and Latinos who come to school, sometimes they're all equally low-income, and yet the outcome seems to be different for the white students - the white students are more likely to finish? Why would that be?
MELLOW: Well, again, who knows is the honest answer. But I'm going to give you my current thinking. And part of it is that a lot of students - we're here in New York City - so students mostly take the subway to go to college. And they don't take the subway to the college closest to their home. Why? Because they might see somebody they know from their neighborhood. In too many neighborhoods in New York City for a Latino or an African-American, you know, 19-year-old, 22-year-old to be walking with a load of books is to be pointed out as not being a member of the community, as someone who either thinks you're better than everyone else or is a sissy. I mean, there's all kinds of negative pressure that is placed on these young men to not do this. So we find that - particularly our successful African-American male students who we gather once a month in a black male empowerment coalition here to talk to each other, to have good role models - that the students talk about what it's like to hide the fact that you're going to college. I'm sorry, but I just don't think those white students have to do that.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, why does it matter that community colleges improve their ability to see these particular groups through to completion?
MELLOW: It matters because the future rests on the shoulders of these young people that we have in college today. If we don't close that gap, if we don't bring these students into the middle class, we are going to have a perpetual have and have-not society. The second piece is that it matters greatly because the creativity, the innovation, the ability to make the changes in our economy that are going to come from the energy of people who see the world differently, resides in these people. They are absolutely our future. And they're, you know, undiscovered gold. And if we don't figure out a way to really mine these resources, to get these students connected and the tools that they need, we as a country, I think, are going to be less for it.
MARTIN: Gail Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College. She was kind enough to join us from her office there. Thank you so much for joining us.
MELLOW: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.