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By Rick Dalton

Every February, Black History Month focuses national attention on Black Americans’ cultural heritage, their civil rights triumphs, and the daunting adversity they have had to overcome. This year, it’s hard to ignore the emerging new wave of adversity they are facing, as state laws banning DEI programs, the death of affirmative action in college admissions, the prohibition on teaching Black history in some states, and an alarming rise in hate crimes target all persons of color.

But the unwelcoming environment these developments are creating is especially harmful to young Black and brown males, who are already falling behind their peers. Plummeting college enrollment reveals their precarious position. The national enrollment of men of color at Title IV institutions (those that accept federal financial aid) is shockingly low, according to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education: Black males make up just 5% of total enrollment at these schools, and Hispanic males just 8%. And low graduation rates are compounding the disparity between Black and brown male students and their peers: The four-year graduation rate for Black males is only 21% and just 32% for Hispanic males, compared with 51% for females and 41% for all males.

Fourteen months ago, I engaged in a deep dive into the problem — reading nearly 10,000 pages of research and interviewing 210 University of Vermont faculty, staff and students, college counselors from across the country, and dozens of business leaders. My goal was to understand why so many fewer males than females, especially Black and brown males, are attending college, and why so many drop out. I also wanted to gain some insight into how these trends can be reversed.

One key lesson I learned was this: While lack of generational wealth is clearly a significant challenge that stymies Black and brown Americans who want to attend college or start businesses, own homes, or move up the income ladder, an equally daunting obstacle is the lack of a network. The web of contacts, role models and relationships affluent, majority parents accumulate and connect their children with is instrumental in getting these children to and through college and in helping them find and succeed in well-paying jobs.

Using these insights, I spearheaded the development of the Young Men of Talent program — a collaboration between CFES Brilliant Pathways, the college and career readiness nonprofit I lead, the University of Vermont, and a growing consortium of businesses and business people in Vermont and out-of-state — to help males of color build a robust network of contacts they can learn from and lean on to enable them to persist in college, graduate and launch careers.

The program was announced at the beginning of the 2023 academic year and kicked off in December. Our first cohort includes 20 UVM men of color, primarily freshmen and sophomores.

Young Men of Talent provides each of these young people with a set of valuable resources. First, each student is paired with a mentor drawn from the business and nonprofit community, either in Vermont or from out-of-state. Students meet virtually or in-person with their mentors weekly or more often if desired.

The program also hosts monthly dinners that bring Young Men of Talent students and mentors together, along with senior administrators from UVM. The goal of these events is to give students an opportunity to practice a key skill — networking — they’ll need time and again as they launch into and advance through their careers. It also jumpstarts the creation of a real network for each of them, contacts they can tap into for years to come.

Young Men of Talent also takes advantage of one of UVM’s most abundant resources: other students. UVM juniors act as peer mentors and are available to Young Men of Talent students 24/7. Finally, the program offers each participant with a paid summer internship. Some of the companies offering these internships include The Shade Room, TransPerfect, Wildlife Imaging and Morgan Stanley.

It’s too early to measure the program’s impact, but important early signs, such as student interest, couldn’t be more promising.

Persuading young men of color to apply to and attend college in the first place is a major challenge the country faces, and is the principal focus of my organization and others like it. Over the years, we have helped over 110,000 young people from low-income backgrounds, many of color, find their way to college and graduate.

But giving these young people the tools to succeed once they arrive on campus is equally important. Graduating from college, not merely attending, and developing career skills and networks, is still the best ticket to a rewarding career.

Through Young Men of Talent, we want to make sure UVM’s male students of color — and those at other schools we will include in the future — have that ticket firmly in hand.

Rick Dalton is president and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways nonprofit.