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Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Learning to Ensure the Success of Students of Color: A Systemic Approach to Effecting Change

Adriana Kezar and Peter Eckel, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

For more than three decades, American colleges and universities have made determined efforts to increase their numbers of students of color, particularly African-American and Hispanic students. And those efforts have paid off. The American Council on Education’s annual status report, Minorities in Higher Education, shows that between 1993 and 2003, African-American college enrollment rose by 42.7 percent, Hispanic enrollment by 68.8 percent, and Asian-American enrollment by 43.5 percent.

But bringing students into higher education is not the same as ensuring that they succeed. The persistence rates of African Americans and Hispanics continue to lag behind those of Asians and non-Hispanic whites. The drop-out rates for Hispanics (29.2 percent) and African Americans (30.1 percent) are close to double those of non-Hispanic whites (18.8 percent) and Asians (14.9 percent)—so that after five years, according to the same ACE report, only 36.4 percent of African-American students and 42 percent of Hispanic students had attained a bachelor’s degree, compared to 62.3 percent of their Asian peers and 58 percent of non-Hispanic white students.

How can institutions change these numbers? To answer this question, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation we conducted interviews with nearly 30 college and university presidents who are recognized by their peers and other higher-education leaders for campus-wide efforts that have made notable progress toward ensuring the success of students of color. We targeted presidents because they are uniquely positioned to have a campus-wide perspective on issues of campus-wide concern. They are able to see the connections between academic and student affairs, across colleges and departments, and across institutional boundaries. They understand how campus-wide culture manifests itself within different units and the resource commitments required to change it. Through hour-long interviews with these presidents, from diverse backgrounds and a wide array of colleges and universities, we gathered lessons and insights gleaned from their successful and unsuccessful experiences in advancing a campus diversity agenda.

We discovered that the keys to fostering academic success for students of color are institutional commitment and a coordinated agenda. On most campuses, a set of discrete and disconnected programs for students of color across campus create a fragmented effort. Diversity initiatives may focus on particular majors (such as students of color in engineering), address campus-life issues (such as cultural houses), or involve special scholarships or service programs. While these compartmentalized efforts may generate limited change, as one president said, “little synergy is created when various units work separately to help students of color. In addition, resources get spread thin.”

So how is a campus-wide approach created on campuses that are successful in retaining and graduating students of color? Organizational learning turns out to be the key.

A Learning Framework
When we in higher education talk about “learning,” we are generally thinking of students as the learners. But organizations need to learn too. Presidents of the institutions in this project believed their campuses did not originally have a true understanding of the challenges they were facing, the efficacy—or lack thereof—of their programs and initiatives, or the progress they were making in helping underrepresented students succeed. One president said that it was the assumption “that the old practices were working that made us stagnant and not address fundamental changes that should have been happening on campus. We need to constantly evaluate our work to support students of color and revise it on an ongoing basis.”