Revisiting How to Best Serve Underrepresented Students
Revisiting How to Best Serve Underrepresented StudentsAbby Hexter, Director, Communications
When Dr. Terrell Strayhorn took the stage to open the 2016 Midwestern Regional Forum, he expressed some lofty goals: to inform, inspire, and encourage the audience to take action. To that end, he suggested that this may be the right time not only to ask new questions, but to revisit the answers to old questions and see if they still make sense when it comes to effecting change in higher education.
In introducing the current state of higher education in America through statistics and common perceptions of cultural diversity, Strayhorn reiterated what many of the K–12 and higher education practitioners in the room knew very well: Despite record numbers of underrepresented and low-income students enrolled in secondary education institutions, these students are significantly less likely to finish than their white or more affluent counterparts.
Strayhorn said that campus policies borne from the experience of “traditional” students won’t serve all students equally. There is an “experience gap” in higher education that is preventing many underrepresented and low-income students from reaping the full benefits of college — so we must begin to think about this problem differently.
He went on to explore how building a sense of belonging on campus would lead to better completion rates. “You can’t really build community without knowing each other — and that starts with knowing someone’s name,” said Strayhorn. When students feel they belong, their confidence in their ability to succeed increases, and they are more likely to seek support, increase their self-efficacy, and earn a degree.
Strayhorn offered several strategies that might help build this sense of belonging:
- Make sure the recruitment goals are practical within a campus culture; if they’re not, that culture might need to shift. For example, if a school’s goal is to recruit more adult learners, but its faculty is unwilling to accommodate unforeseen scheduling circumstances common with this group of students (childcare, part-time employment, etc.), those policies must shift to ensure that adult learners feel as though they belong on campus.
- Create a program that matches underrepresented students with an “academic spotter” who will act as a monitor for academic, social, and experiential progress and offer needed assistance when necessary. This should exist in addition to traditional support services on campus.
- Students should be able to see themselves reflected on campus. Efforts should be made to increase the number of faculty members from diverse backgrounds and to ensure that students have access to campus activities or groups that support them and celebrate their cultural heritage.
- Recognize that while we as educators understand the culture and nuance of higher education, many people do not. “We can act as cultural navigators and meet the needs of ordinary people,” he said.