Friday, April 2, 2010

How do we get young men to want to go to college and want to work hard once they get there?

Earlier this week I read an article about the challenge of engaging male students in a meaningful college experience.  I  saw the anti-intellectual attitude alluded to in this article displayed at the high school level when I was a teacher and coach, and I see it now in my work in higher education.  It's not that male students aren't intelligent, don't work hard, or aren't prepared for college-level work.  It's just that, in far too many cases, being a good learner and being a "man" are mistakenly viewed as being mutually exclusive.  This false dichotomy leaves young men feeling like they have to choose one role or the other.  And, at 18 years old being "cool" or "chill" generally wins out.  This means that participating in class, being seen in the library, or having any sort of academic conversation outside of class is strictly taboo (Note:  many will do "academic" things when no one is looking, but my experience has been that the best kind of learning is, at least part of the time, public and social).

Really, there are two related problems here:  (1) Getting males to want to go to college, trade school, technical training, etc. and (2) Helping those that do go to take full advantage of the opportunity rather than doing enough to not kicked out, but without looking like they really care all that much.  I realize that my mentioning these problems is not earth-shattering and that there are a lot of people thinking about the same thing.  The shortcoming I see is in the way we go about trying to remedy these problems.

This made me wonder how we could package some of our basic messages about the value of education and deliver them in ways that would resonate with the students we are trying to reach, particularly male students.  The Inside Higher Ed article I linked to above mentions a strategy employed by Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia wherein students are introduced to the concept of a "Morehouse Man" that embodies a set of core values that the institution believes are characteristic of the type of men they hope to graduate (Morehouse is an all-male institution).  The intent is to help students see and believe that being a man includes being well-dressed, well-spoken, well-educated, etc. and that to become that sort of man a student needs to do certain things while they are in college.  The question I would have is whether the audience they are intending to reach (those students that for whatever reason aren't living up to the ideals held out by the institution) really want to become a "Morehouse Man" or at least the image of  a "Morehouse Man" that has been created by this messaging.  

An example of this same sort of challenge is outlined in Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.  In a nutshell, the state of Texas wanted to decrease the amount of litter on their highways.  And, they knew which Texans were most likely to litter, so they targeted their campaign at "Bubba."  Bubba represented the 18 - 35 year old male, pickup truck driving, country music listening demographic that seemed to be at the heart of the litter problem.  The idea was to give the standard "don't litter" message using both language and messengers that "Bubba" would relate to.  So, they brought in members of the Dallas Cowboys, Mike Scott of the Houston Astros, and Willie Nelson and the now well-known phrase "Don't mess with Texas" was born.  These weren't just famous people, they were people that Bubba saw as real Texans, men that Bubba wanted to be like.  The strategy worked and visible litter along Texas roadways had decreased 72% within five years.  

So, the question am left with in all of this is who our Bubbas are and how we can package two old messages (education is valuable and education means doing things that lead to good learning) in new ways.  Who would male students respond to and what could that person or group of people say that would make an 18 year-old male student want to be a scholar?   

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