How Community Colleges Can Help Close the Achievement Gap

Dec 22, 2014

Knowledge King studies for his final exams on campus at Ivy Tech Community College.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

The community college was invented to be a gateway to opportunity – open access, low tuition, and a focus on workplace readiness. That model draws a diverse student population, with a vast array of needs.

Today we continue our yearlong series The Difference, exploring black male achievement, with a look at the role of the community college in closing the achievement gap.

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino visited Ivy Tech Community College in Fort Wayne to learn about the challenge of getting black students in the door, the greater challenge of keeping them there, and the mentoring program that’s hoping to make the difference for some students.

When he was in middle school, Knowledge King didn’t know if college was for him.

“And then in high school I really was sure that I wanted to go to school because I knew exactly what I wanted to do," says King. "Psychology.”

Now he’s 20, and in his second year at Ivy Tech Community College. That makes him an exception to most of his friends from his neighborhood growing up.

“They could’ve made a different decision, and I understand why they didn’t," says King. "If you grow up with nothing, you want something, you know.” 

King says unfortunately that “something” often comes from things like robberies or selling drugs. For young black men, including King, whose end game is making money, investing in education is not a no-brainer.

“Because there’s a lot of people with college degrees that don’t have a job," says King.

That’s why King and other community college students take a strategic approach -  study something that could yield a career, and take at least some business classes.

Chris Cathcart understands how hard it is to get black students through the door at Ivy Tech, he’s the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs there. He says a lot of his black students didn’t want to go there.

“It’s kinda like this perception that if I go to Ivy Tech I’m somehow less than, and not understanding that going to Ivy Tech can solve so many problems," says Cathcart. "Like you can still go to IU, you can still go to Purdue, but you come here first and you’ve reduced the amount of debt you’ve got to pay back in the long run.” 

Catchcart says that lack of long term thinking is why lots of students drop out. And with the job market improving, many students would rather solve their immediate financial problems by working.

Enrollment at Ivy Tech is down, especially for students of color. 

“Stay a year, just a year, and I can probably double your income, just a year,” says Cathcart.

That’s where the African American Male Initiative comes in. The college’s mentoring program has been at the school for about four years. As one of the mentors, Cathcart starts by taking students to financial aid.

“Because if they’re eligible for work study then they can get a job here on campus, and if they’re here on campus then they’re more engaged with us as a community, if they’re more engaged with us as a community, they’re more likely to continue and do well,” says Cathcart

He requires weekly meetings with all his students. They go to lunches together, events. It’s a very personal relationship.

“That feeling of connectedness , that stickiness, that they feel that somebody is concerned about them, and that’s what makes them say ‘you know what this is hard, but I’m going to stay,” says Cathcart.

He says historically in the African American community, people look to their elders for accountability. But that doesn’t mean the mentorship role comes naturally to him.

“Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I know, I don’t," says Cathcart. "I’m feeling my way through the dark as I go, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this process. “

Knowledge King happens to be the student president of the initiative. Overall, he says his college experience has been even greater than he expected. He says "I  didn’t expect to walk in here and see so many successful black people.” 

He says just seeing Cathcart as Vice Chancellor was a big part of why he became more engaged in school. But he says the model of mentorship within the greater black community has a lot of problems.

“I grew up hearing 'you’re young you’re dumb you don’t know nothing,' when you tell me that I don’t want to hear nothing else you’ve got to say, I’m not the only one that feels like that" says King. "It’s a disconnection, so even if we have good role models, their challenge is, how do we reach the youth?”

King admits the problem goes both ways, says his generation are a bunch of “knuckleheads.”

“We think we know everything," says King. "We don’t wanna listen.”

But now Knowledge King wants to help bridge that gap of communication, by paying forward his mentorship to the next generation of young black men.

“Like I’m an inspiration to people they get around me, are like wow you’re doing all these things," says King. "It makes them wanna do something.”

For now, Ivy Tech’s mentorship program is small, struggling to attain resources and additional members. It’s very word of mouth. But Cathcart and the rest of the mentors aren’t too focused on growth,rather, strengthening the relationships that seem to be making a difference.

This is the latest installment in WBOI's yearlong project, "The Difference."

You can help inform our coverage of black male achievement in Fort Wayne. Submit photos, stories, or news tips to valvino@nipr.fm

And for personal stories, graphs, and more, check out our tumblr page: thedifferencefw.tumblr.com