Empowering students to change their lives and enrich the life of the community has long been Montgomery College’s mission. In order to serve all students, the College works to remove barriers to higher education access, retention, and success. To that end, MC recently announced the launching of the Presidential Scholars Program, which will be open to students of all backgrounds who are committed to increasing the representation of men of color in high workforce need areas.
The program will provide financial aid support, academic support, student support services, and internal and external mentors to students who reflect its stated commitment and program goals. Montgomery College DeRionne Pollard has led the initiative, which she calls a “moral imperative.”
Students will demonstrate this commitment in the application essay. The program will be piloted through a phased approach starting fall 2021, with an ultimate goal of 300 or more students participating.
The program goals are to increase the representation of men of color in high workforce need areas; to increase African American male student completion; expand the involvement of employers in high workforce need areas by serving as mentors; and intentionally address systemic racism.
“As we consider the future of higher education, there must be a focus on the importance of human connections to drive student success in college,” said Monica Brown, senior vice president for student affairs, whose area will oversee the program. “That is especially true for students of color, particularly American-born Black male students, who will benefit significantly from participating in the Presidential Scholars Program.”
There is data to support that these students would benefit but, also, personal stories. David Sears, senior vice president for Advancement and Community Engagement at the College, recalls a former American-born Black male student who worked in his division after serving time in jail. The student had received a scholarship from the MC Foundation as part of the MC-county jail partnership [an educational partnership between MC and Montgomery County’s Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (MCDOCR) centers]. Jonathan was a 4.0 student during his year at MC with dreams of going to University of Maryland (UMD). He ran track but thought he would play basketball at UMD. He was also a single dad.
Student participants will have a supportive network of faculty, staff, mentors, and peers focused on their success. They will receive financial, academic and student supports as well as access to industry-based mentors and role models to help promote academic success and career readiness.
“I spent time mentoring him about how we could help him transfer to College Park, managing his school, work, and parental responsibilities, and how to manage his expectations of being a scholarship basketball player at a D-1 school at age 26 with no history of playing in high school or otherwise,” Sears recalled. “One day, he just up and left and moved to Colorado because he got advice from a family member that college was not important and that he could get a better paying entry-level job in Colorado to support his son.”
According to Sears, the student did not have the appropriate support system in place to realize the importance of his academic progress, especially when he was just a year away from a degree.
“He never finished school and I have not heard from him since,” Sears said. “We were so close to getting him to a degree and opening a whole new set of doors for him. I was so proud of him for getting his life back on track,” Sears said. “That is why the Presidential Scholars Program is important to me—so that current and future Jonathans have the right support system in place to get them a degree and open greater opportunities for them.”
“Student participants will have a supportive network of faculty, staff, mentors, and peers focused on their success,” Dr. Brown said. “They will receive financial, academic and student supports as well as access to industry-based mentors and role models to help promote academic success and career readiness.”
Although the Presidential Scholars Program will launch in fall 2021, details continue to be honed by College leadership and committee members. The College anticipates providing a formal and more detailed announcement in the spring 2021 semester.
As a starting point, Westat, the Rockville-based professional services employee-owned corporation, has made a 10-year-commitment to the Montgomery College Foundation in support of the program.
What the data tells us
The College has been tracking cohorts of students by race and gender for a few years to understand how different demographic groups perform and to find ways to better support them from first-enrollment through graduation. In 2011 the Closing the Achievement Gap Committee released a list of recommendations focused on the graduation gap between white and Asian students, and Black and Hispanic students, according to John Hamman, chief analytics and insights officer at MC. Hamman explains data from a two-year tracking period between fall 2018 and fall 2020:
“At the beginning of fall 2018, MC had just over 1,000 Black and Hispanic new students, compared to 623 white and Asian male students. For that first spring (2019), we see that 76 % of the Black and Hispanic students returned, whereas 81% of the white and Asian students returned,” Hamman said. “Next fall, 2019, the Black and brown students went down to 62%, while the white/Asian enrollment was at 68%, so about a 6% gap there. By the end of the two years, only 33 of the Black and brown male students graduated, so about 3% of them.”
To improve retention of students of color from enrollment through graduation, the College needs to better identify and understand the stumbling blocks for this group of students. The College has already redesigned its introductory, developmental and gateway courses, such as English Language for Academic Purposes (ELAP), English, and math with equity in mind. These are courses typically needed by Hispanic and Black students. As the redesigns were implemented, the percentage of students who passed gateway courses (especially Black and brown males) has risen consistently.
According to Hamman, another barrier is that Black and Hispanic students at MC are twice as likely to be eligible for Pell grants (64%), which is a proxy for income, compared to white and Asian students (33%). The data points to the fact that a lot of these students have other financial barriers at the College: a higher percent of Black and Hispanic male students are part-time students compared to their white and Asian peers.
“There is nothing wrong with being part time, but it will add time to achieving your degree,” Hamman says. “And it’s likely you will have more complexity going on in your life, juggling other things: families, work, or both… and those things make it harder to keep your studies as your highest priority.”
By removing financial burdens, the Presidential Scholars Program allows students to make school their top priority.