Campus Ecology and the Engagement Motivations of Black Males at Small, Private Liberal Arts Colleges



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Background/Context. Although predominantly White institutions (PWIs) promote that opportunities for positive engagement and success are provided for all students who seek them out (Bourke, 2016; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Love, 2004), Black male counterstories tell a different tale of Black male college outcomes (see Brooms, 2017; Harper, 2009a; Hotchkins & Dancy, 2015; Iverson & Jaggers, 2015; Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007; Smith, Yosso, Solórzano, 2007; Smith et al., 2016). Small liberal arts colleges have been theorized as providing students with distinctive educational experiences when compared to other institution types (Kuh, 2003). However, Strayhorn and DeVita (2010) contended that liberal arts colleges did not offer these same results for Black males. Further, other researchers noted that, compared to their White peers, African American students and other students of color experienced their predominantly White liberal arts campuses as more racialized and unsupportive spaces (Allen, 2018; Ariza & Berkey, 2009; Littleton, 2001; Snyder & Custer, 2017; Watson & Kuh, 1996).

Purpose of the Study. To contribute to the literature on Black male collegiate engagement and success, this study examined qualitative data, framed by the theoretical and methodological perspectives of critical race theory (CRT), to explore how Black males make meaning of their experiences at predominantly White small, private liberal arts colleges (SPLACs) and how these experiences and interactions may have influenced their decisions to be engaged on campus. Banning and Strange’s (2001, 2015) model of campus ecology intersects with CRT to form a race-space conceptual framework. The reciprocal interaction of race and campus ecology covertly promotes the racialized exclusion and “othering” of Black males on campuses (Villalpando, 2004).

Research Design. Critical race methodology (CRM) is enacted through a case study to guide inquiry with, and counterstorytelling from, Black males at Midwest Acres College (pseudonym). Data for this study were derived through semi-structured interviews with participants (referred to as co-researchers throughout the study). Data for this study were analyzed using elements of Spradley’s (1979) analysis methods—domain analysis, taxonomic analysis, componential analysis, and thematic analysis—to identify relationships and greater themes through which Black male counterstories were situated.

Results of the Study. Through the counterstories of the co-researchers for this study, four main themes emerged. The greater themes discovered were (a) experiences of being a Black male; (b), constituents of Black male bonding; (c) aids in the performance of Black male coping at a PWI; and (d) attributes of the campus ecology. Within these themes, sub-themes provided a deeper look into the co-researcher’s experiences. These themes and sub-themes not only provided valuable data on how the Black males in this study made meaning of their experiences at Midwest Acres, but illustrated how interrelated these elements are to how the co-researchers’ engagement decisions were influenced by the campus ecology of their SPLAC. Their counterstories highlighted the benefits of their attendance at Midwest Acres College as well as how their Black male identities may lead to “othering” both at Midwest Acres and in the greater society.



Black males, Campus ecology, Critical race methodology, Critical race theory, Liberal arts college, PWI, Race-space framework, Student engagement