5 things colleges can do to support students of color

Achievement gaps still exist between white students and students of color at colleges across the country, even though higher education leaders have been working hard to close them, Nick Chiles writes for the Hechinger Report. 

Chiles interviewed nearly a dozen experts to understand why the gaps persist and how colleges can better support students of color. He identifies five recommendations for colleges based on his interviews.

1: Re-consider who's at fault when students struggle

Some faculty members believe it is their responsibility to weed out everyone but the most elite students, according to Charles Fisher, a professor of biology and associate dean for graduate education at Pennsylvania State University. Instead, Fisher argues that all students admitted to the institution should be able to succeed. Therefore, if students fail, he argues, the problem lies with the institution, not the student.

2: Encourage students to form study and support groups

Chiles cites research from Uri Treisman, a professor of mathematics and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and founder and executive director of the school's Charles A. Dana Center, which helps colleges nationwide learn to better support their students of color.

In research he did as a graduate student in 1974, Treisman found that Asian students who performed well in mathematics classes tended to work in study groups and support each other, while black and Latino students who were struggling tended to work alone. In response to his research, Treisman launched a new program that encouraged black and Latino students to study in groups. Students in the program closed achievement gaps and went on to have distinguished careers in STEM.

Related: How one university promoted student retention with community-centric residence halls

3: Engage the entire campus

For black and Latino students to achieve academic success, reforms have to be implemented systemically and across campus, Treisman says. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, agrees. "It's only when there is a cultural difference, focusing on everybody from faculty, staff to administration, saying the success of these students from different backgrounds is a top priority on campus, only then can you make a difference," Hrabowski says.

Treisman also argues that colleges should stop placing black and Latino students in remedial courses. Minorities are often overrepresented in remedial courses, with 56% of black students and 45% of Hispanic students enrolling in them. "With remedial programs, they learn math as a compliance activity," Treisman says.

4: Partner with faculty

Professors' expectations of black and Latino students should be just as high as it is for students of other groups. To encourage this shift at his institution, Hrabowski established the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which admits 50 high-achieving black and Latino students each year. All of the students arrive to class early, sit in class together, and the ask the professor tough questions.

This has helped to change the perception of black students, says Michael Summers, a biochemistry professor who works with the program. Now, if a student earns a C grade, the professor call the student into his office to ask what happened. Before, the C may have been that professor's expectation, Summers says.

Six roles for faculty in student success

5: Dedicate counselors to students of color

Georgia State University (GSU) graduates more black students each year than any other nonprofit school in the country, and has exponentially increased graduation rates for low-income, first-generation, and Latino students as well. Chiles attribute have counselors who support students of color through program called "GPS Advising," which involves reaching out to students as soon as they start to get off track academically, Chiles writes (Chiles, Hechinger Report, 5/24).


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