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New Presidential Scholars Program

Deliberate Action, Dismantled Barriers, Dreams Realized
Crowd of students in the student services lobby on the TPSS campus

Every educator remembers the face and the name of a student who gave it all they had but still didn’t finish college.

Teachers, professors, and academic coaches often think about what more they could have done. What they could have done better to personalize, customize, or tailor the experience that might have helped that student reach his or her full potential. Sometimes the questions and the answers are more complex than one educator’s ability to create opportunity. Sometimes bigger issues are at play that must be addressed at the institutional level. And sometimes, the best way to help one student is to help many at the same time.

For Dr. Monica Brown, senior vice president for student affairs, and leaders at Montgomery College, it is clear that they have to do more than remember the faces. They have to face the numbers. Far too many students who struggle to finish college are African American male students. The statistics bear this out. 

Montgomery College’s data shows that more than half of African American male students will struggle to complete courses at a level needed to transfer to four-year institutions or to graduate MC with an associate’s degree. On average, their graduation rates, grade point averages, and time to completion of a degree are significantly below those of the College’s overall student body. 

Montgomery County data also reflects challenging statistics on degree attainment for African Americans. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, and a 2021 Aspen Institute report, 72% of white and Asian residents of Montgomery County have an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 50% of African American county residents. This means there are significant differences in income, with whites earning an average of $135,635 per year and African Americans earning an average income of $72,617. The report also reflects lower retention rates (return to college after first year) and degree completion rates for African American students in the county compared to their peers.

Student in classroom wearing purple MC shirt

Montgomery College is positioned to offer a strategic response to this complex issue. The Presidential Scholars Program will help students succeed academically, complete their degree, and enter careers in industries, such as STEM fields and nursing, which have more positions than workers to fill them and offer life-sustaining wages. This investment in the students who face the most barriers to degree completion with evidence-based and equity-focused strategies means these talented, yet underachieving, students can reach their full academic and life potential.

Part of the motivation to strengthen support for African American male students and engage the broader community is the sense of urgency at all levels. The United States is experiencing a unique moment of attention and concern for African Americans and the African American experience, including increased recognition of inequities. After having witnessed protests in all 50 states and around the world, many more hearts and minds are focused right now on investing in equitable solutions and understanding and tackling race-based problems. For Montgomery College, that means providing new solutions to increasing degree completion for African American male students facing the most difficult barriers to their college success.

Brown, whose division will oversee the Presidential Scholars Program, says this: “We are responsible for what we know now and what we do now. We need to be willing to address the issue head on. It fits into the College mission: We are accountable for our results.”

How Will the Presidential Scholars Program Change Lives?

The Presidential Scholars Program is open to students of all backgrounds who are committed to increasing the representation of men of color in high-wage/high-demand careers. Students in the program will receive individualized financial aid support, academic support, student support services, and connections to a network of internal and external mentors.

Student at graduation in cap and gown
The institutional strategy to accelerate achievement for African American male students has four intended outcomes:
  1. Increase completion of degrees and professional certifications.
  2. Increase representation of men of color in careers in industries
    with life-sustaining salaries and more jobs than workers to fill them.
  3. Connect students with employers and mentors from industries with
    the best opportunities for high salaries and excellent prospects.
  4. Demonstrate (clearly) the intention and solutions for addressing
    systemic racism and other barriers to success.

Through the support of visionary and generous donors, the Montgomery College Foundation has secured $1 million of the $10 million needed over the next three to five years. In that timeframe, the program will support 300 or more student participants in ways that yield the intended, measurable results. The first group of 30 students will begin in spring 2022.

Westat Steps Up

“Westat believes that investing in education strengthens our workforce, and the Presidential Scholars Program will expand access and opportunity for young people. Our company is proud to support this groundbreaking program that will make education an accessible dream for all citizens. I am encouraged that more talented students will be empowered to achieve, and that education equity goals that are so greatly needed will be met. I know that Montgomery College will experience radical success in the years to come in strengthening our communities.” —Scott Royal, PhD, president and CEO, Westat

Westat, the Rockville-based professional services corporation, has made a 10-year commitment to the Montgomery College Foundation in support of the Presidential Scholars Program.

“Each of the program’s strategies address recognized challenges for African American male students, including the cost of higher education, systemic and institutional racism, detachment from campus life, and higher education settings that do not always feel welcome or supportive of their goals,” says Brown.

Students in the program will be those who can most benefit from a structured approach to financial, academic, student, and mentoring support to spur completion of a college degree or certification.

Specifically, program leaders will build unity and camaraderie among these students, use mentoring as a strategy for supporting students on their academic and professional journeys, and provide living examples of African American male achievement, including many who can share their own college and professional experiences. At the same time, leaders will be focused on supporting students in their own career interests, exposing them to the jobs in high demand in our county and region.

Jonathan Spires, an African American student at Montgomery College and student representative on the Montgomery College Foundation Board of Directors, says this to those considering donating to this important program: “Your donation is a long-term investment. Those who will benefit from it don’t know about it yet, they don’t know the amount of investment that’s being poured in their life yet. They don’t know how important their opinion is. These donations will allow Black men to begin to see how important we are in the role of society.”

Brown, who has three sons of her own, has high hopes for the program and what it means for African American male students. Thinking about the program makes her reflect on one African American male student and what it took to get him to a degree. The student had been homeschooled and was significantly behind academically when he came to Montgomery College. He was struggling with social interaction and feeling connected while in college. With the support of faculty and staff, he persisted in his studies and got very involved in the student senate. Brown says, “The support that was wrapped around him gave him the confidence to be successful. He transferred to Georgetown University. He graduated and got his law degree. He’s just one of the students who come to mind. That’s a success story.”

Increasing Representation in MC Classrooms

 “We are on the front line witnessing the struggle of Black men and their absence in our college classrooms. Some have already benefited from coaching. Others miss out because the College was unable to reach them and convince them of the value of a college degree. James and I have three sons, so this is near and dear to our hearts. Without this program, there may not be an opportunity for a young Black man to have the college experience, to get that degree, and have some semblance of opportunity.” —Jane Smith, MC alumna, faculty member, MC Foundation board member

Donors Jane C. Smith ‘76 and James Washington, both active in coaching MC students, support the Presidential Scholars Program with their recent gift.