Improving Minority Student Participation and Retention in Higher Education.

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Back in 2005, I was asked by the Colorado Department of Higher Education to conduct a workshop and provide a Q&A on improving minority participation in higher education. This was on the heels of my 2003 Jossey-Bass publication, Retaining Minority Students in Higher Education with friends and colleagues Laura Perna and Ken Redd.

I came across this Q&A by accident this week while doing my semi-annual, semi-neurotic, OCD-infested file cleansing of my 100+ GB dropbox folder. All in all, I think this piece still stands the test of time, given that nothing has really changed in the past decade beyond college getting more and more expensive. I figure this is worthy of sharing with you in an as is condition. I am interested in your thoughts. WSS>

1. What can Colorado schools do to improve minority student participation and retention?

Institutions of all types—two-year, four-year, public, private, and proprietary—can do many things to increase minority student participation and retention, but all require intensive efforts. Rarely does a school improve their service to these students without a series of proactive and entrenched policies and practices.

Let’s first talk about access and participation. If Colorado institutions want a more diverse student body, then they must go out and encourage those students to apply and enroll. Low-income students and students of color won’t just “pop-up” on campus. They must be sought out in middle and high schools. Schools must be encouraged to work with secondary schools and help students understand the importance of a college education and what steps are necessary to make that transition. This is called “outreach,” and can be done on several levels. At the most modest level, institutions can provide information to school counselors targeted toward these students. A more intensive effort involves working directly with schools. Institutions can send ambassadors out to schools. Ambassadors come in the form of alumni, faculty, and students. Institutions can also provide opportunities for students to visit campus. This is an often promising technique that can have a strong impact on students, especially those without educational legacy. By visiting a campus, they see that they can possibly “belong,” a concept important to future success.

Institutions need to work with schools to ensure that students are preparing and submitting applications. Again, these services can be specially targeted toward minority students and others. Institutions can build databases of their local students and provide “push” mailers to get students to consider their options and take the necessary steps toward college.

Once students do apply, are accepted, and enroll, the work gets harder for institutions. Historically, postsecondary institutions apply the “sink or swim” attitude toward students. Professors like to point out that the person on either side of you will be gone by the end of semester. Not comforting, and not altogether helpful to students. I like to put it this way: when institutions accept an application from a student, they enter a legal contract to do whatever they can to support the success and learning of that student. We can argue what this means in real practices or strategies, but the attitude is almost as important as the practice. Institutions must commit to helping students matriculate, acculturate, and develop their learning capacity to meet their goals.

Initially, institutions must learn about each and every student on campus. In order to help students, one must first understand their strengths and weaknesses. Only then can the institution provide appropriate services to help that student. If institutions do that, success isn’t guaranteed. Simply providing services—whether academic or social support—is insufficient. Students requiring special assistance are typically those who do not seek that assistance out. Institutions must be somewhat intrusive in applying services to students. Institutions must initially diagnose students and track students to identify need. Then they must overtly engage the student for services.

The college campus is not a field of dreams. If you build it they will not come. If you provide academic tutoring or counseling, students typically will not attend unless they are identified and strongly encouraged to attend. In some ways, they need to be told to go, which may require policy and enforcement.


2. What role does state funding play in providing college access and success?

State funding plays a bigger role than most of us would like to admit. But because postsecondary education is essentially a state responsibility, it largely falls to the state to provide the necessary resources to open access and support success. Yes, the federal government lends a large hand through Pell Grants and other need- and non-need based programs, but the setting of tuition and provision of other need-based aid programs come back to the state.

The state is also important in launching campaigns to get the message out to all students that college is possible. I was invited to speak at the launch of College in Colorado back in the spring. This type of initiative is exactly the type of vehicle that the state can and should be providing to get this message out. What the state needs to do is continue to improve the message and ensure that Colorado’s most needy students are receiving that message and acting upon it.

Of course, information is not enough. The state needs to expand its outreach effort to ensure that the message gets to those more difficult populations, and this only happens through appropriations and expenditures.


3. Why are Latino and African-American students more price-sensitive compared to white and Asian students?

There exists research that illustrates the cultural sensitivity that certain populations have toward price sensitivity and debt aversion. The same can be attributed to low-income families who have a history of limited resources. Telling a family that college is important when the cost of attendance for an academic year may equal one-half of the entire family income is a reach. How can they possibly do it? For Latino and African-American students, similar reactions exist.

Finances aren’t the only deterrent to these students. We also hear of the pressure on Latino students to stay close to home, or even stay at home. Thus, the thought of going away to college in a more traditional manner is sacrilegious to many families.

These populations, and especially the parents, need to be educated about the impact of a postsecondary education and how that education can literally change lives.


4. Do remedial courses work?  Are they effective?

There is a lot of bad press about remedial education. Truth be told, if our high schools did a better job doing what they needed to do, we wouldn’t have to rely on remedial education. But even so, some level of remedial education needs to be available to students. I know from my own experience: I was a math major in college, but over a year had passed between my final high school math course and my first college calculus course. I needed some retraining to get my trigonometry skills back in tune. While I didn’t take a remedial course, I did have a tutor who acted as my remedial guide.

Several studies have shown that remedial courses are often not useful, but our recent research on Latino students found that certain remedial courses were indeed important to retention. For instance, Latino students who took remedial English courses were more likely to persist at the four-year level. Why? Perhaps because they’re English skill isn’t quite what it should be and the remedial opportunity provides that opportunity to gain the necessary skills to achieve at the college level.

Are they effective? I’d ask the same of all college courses? Why single these out. I believe that all courses can be good or bad. But I think students need access to remedial courses in some manner, whether at the four-year or two-year level.


5. What policies can the Commission adopt to address minority access and success?

As with institutions, the Commission also has to adopt an attitude that is steadfast in support of college access and success for students. States are notoriously poor at staying the course for poor and minority students. When the economy goes sour, states typically pull back on higher education and force more load on institutions, resulting in increased tuition, fees, and other related costs.

A recent cautionary tale shows us the importance of staying the course on college opportunity. Indiana has been a leader in state-run opportunity programs. The Indiana Career and Postsecondary Advancement Center (ICPAC) provides interactive information to students and families. But two years ago much of its funding was cut when political winds starting blowing. I’m unsure why this happened, but they essentially gutted a wonderful program. This should be a strong lesson to Colorado and other states. Just because you want to do the right thing here and now doesn’t mean that those that follow will do the same. Nothing is guaranteed, so do your best to protect the future. From my point of view, the best thing the Commission can do is entrench legislation so this doesn’t happen.

With regard to postsecondary access, longevity is key. Whatever policies are introduced, legislators must understand that these changes take time. It is unlikely that large-scale changes in either access or retention will happen within a year or two. These are complex, systemic problems that require careful planning, buy-in from the education communities, and a strong implementation plan. Garbage in, garbage out. While certain, quick-fix policies may be politically expedient, they aren’t worth their weight in gold.

Throwing money at the problem is clearly not the solution to the postsecondary access and success challenge of students of color. Of course, not throwing money at it is worse. Thus, state funds must be carefully targeted toward the greatest need for the state and society.

Generally speaking, students of color are no different than other students in that they do not go to college for one of three barriers: academic preparation, college knowledge, and ability to pay.

Academic Preparation. I place this first because, quite simply, if students don’t have the academic wherewithal to attend college, the argument is moot. Students must be provided with the tools to think and learn and do. The difficult is that students from low-income backgrounds and often of color have significantly less access to academic resources than more affluent, often White students.

These students are less likely to be taught by qualified teachers and attend schools with adequate resources with regard to technology and infrastructure. In addition, they often live in environments that are not conducive to high-level learning and achievement. Together, these challenges create a major barrier to college preparation.

Thus, state access policy must start with ensuring that students attend public schools that offer a positive learning environment with well-trained teachers. This sounds like a throwaway—reform the public schools—but ultimately the best defense is a good offence. Make the system better and all students will prosper.

This is done by demanding higher standards at all levels of education. Demand better teachers, better administrators, better paraprofessionals, and demand more of students. But to do this, each stakeholder has to know what’s in it for them. The state, in partnership with school districts, must design incentives to make this happen. Teachers won’t get better just because the state tells them to. If there isn’t a direct opportunity for teachers to gain advantage, either in salary, benefits, or other intangibles, they won’t meet the mark. If the state raises the bar without a positive effect, potentially promising teachers will opt for other professions. Equally important is the facility to foster excellence. If the state wants better teachers and schools, then learning opportunities must be made available. Colleges of education and in-service training opportunities must not only be offered, but be of sufficient quality to make a difference.

For students, the problem that states and districts run into is to demand higher levels of academic achievement without appropriate safety nets in place. As with teachers, if states simply alter the graduation policies or college admissions policies without doing the more difficult work required, students will fail to meet these expectations. Some people subscribe to the myth that if students are just held to a higher standard they will achieve that standard. While that works for some students, it doesn’t work for all of them, and perhaps not most of them. Further, if those standards are unrealistic, then students will fail miserably. Consider it this way: if students, especially low-income or students of color, are ill-prepared to begin with, what makes us think that they will make this huge leap without additional resources? In addition to better teaching, they will require tutoring and mentoring to help them come to terms with faster pace and more challenging course work. The state can ensure that resources are available to elementary, middle, and high school in high-need areas to provide supplementary tutoring and instruction. If the state doesn’t have much an outreach effort, maybe it’s time it should.

Knowledge Barriers. Even if students can maneuver the academic hurdles, they must navigate the sea of knowledge regarding life after high school. Most students go to college without a firm idea of what they want to do for a living. I like to quote comedienne Paula Poundstone, who asks rhetorically, “Do you know why grown men ask young children what they want to do when they grow up? They’re looking for ideas!” Well, we leave our students in that type of situation. We expect them to aspire to postsecondary education without a firm foundation of who they are or what they wish to become. We talk much about aspirations as if it this concrete element in the lives of students, but we don’t operationalize it for them. Students must aspire, but to do so they need the tools to make decisions about what they like to do and how that links with the working world.

Career exploration is a trivial pursuit in most schools. In fact, career exploration should be a significant element of the middle and high school experience. By giving students a thorough opportunity to explore careers, they will define their own future and understand why their secondary education is an important vehicle for attaining their personal goals. Thus, career exploration fuels not only aspirations, but student motivation and understanding.

Students also need to become “college knowledgeable.” Understanding careers and futures is one element, but students need to be informed about postsecondary options and linkages. In a recent survey my organization did of Kentucky high school students, we found that high school seniors overestimated the tuition at two- and four-year public institutions by at least 100 percent. National studies show similar results. Students need to understand the true cost of a college education. Equally important is to understand the cost of not going to college.

Students from areas that do not send a high proportion of students to college suffer from low-expectations and low-information about college. We often here stories about the “best” students from these areas—the students who are sure to succeed—who drop out from college and come back to their community a failure. What do students learn? If the so-called best can’t succeed, how could they possibly entertain the thought of success? This attitude is pervasive in low-income communities, which are often populated by people who are Latino and Black rather than White.

These students also come from families that do not have a college history, they live in areas which are not conducive to high academic achievement, and they attend public schools where teachers are either inferior or unsupportive of a student development.

Guidance counselors are important stakeholders for providing information, but often do not have the resources or time to conduct adequate counseling with students and parents. The state government could alter the mandate of counselors and counseling and ensure that students and their parents get the information they need early and often.

This is all to say that “college knowledge,” through continued efforts like “College in Colorado,” is important. But it must be targeted to those who really need the information and support.

Financial Barriers. Many students don’t go to college because they either can’t afford to go or they don’t believe they can afford to go. If adequately prepared for college, some level of postsecondary education is generally available to all students. Pell Grants, Colorado State Grants, supplementary grants, and the College in Colorado Scholarship go a long way to opening the doors to postsecondary education for students. But is it enough? Does it provide a level playing field for all students? Complicating this fact is that access is not a binary concept—to go or not to go. Rather, there are various levels of access. One must ask “access to what?” Does income play a role in who goes to two-year rather than four-year institutions? Private versus public? The state must decide what equality of access means to them and whether this is an important or manageable policy objective.

Further complicating the financial perspective is that many low-income students and families self-select themselves out of the college pipeline because of misinformation view of their postsecondary options. I mentioned our survey findings in Kentucky, and my bet is we would find the same overestimation here in Colorado. That needs to change. Students and parents need to know exactly what it costs to go to postsecondary school in Colorado and how they can fund it.


6. Why are two-year colleges less successful in retaining students, par.?

Mostly because two-year institutions serve a different cut of students. These students are typically older and less traditional than four-year students; they come from lower-income backgrounds; have more “risk factors” associated with them; and have different expectations and goals. Not all two-year students are interested in earning an AA. And those that do, or even aspire to a BA, bring other baggage with them. The risk factors mentioned include having to support their family, inflexibility in moving to attend school, and financial need to attend part time, which is associated with persistence.

Two-year colleges cannot be held to the same standard. Nor can all four-year institutions be held to the same standard across the board. Each institution has to be evaluated separately.


7. Should the focus be on “college for all” or something else?

Politically speaking, yes, the focus should be on “college for all.” However, in reality college isn’t for everybody. Some people are not cut for BA-level work; either because of occupational interest or academic ability. Also, the economy could not assimilate that many BA grads if we were to dramatically increase the yield. This said, the focus should be that every study in Colorado deserves the chance to prepare, go, and succeed at the postsecondary level. That should be the goal. Let students and families make decisions based on the best interest of the student, but the state needs to ensure that EVERYBODY has a reasonable chance of success in meeting their personal goals.


8. How do you expect the reauthorization of the higher education act will affect college access and success?

I think the HEA will have limited impact on access and success. Not much will change; Congress has pulled back on threats to impose legislation to monitor college retention and persistence rates. The programs needed are already in the HEA and will not disappear. What matters more is the appropriation of funds, and that’s a year-to-year deal.


9. How do you balance access with accountability?  That is, should a college admit “risky” students?

The state needs to understand and support the fact that its institutions have different missions and serve diverse audiences. There cannot be across-the-board policy, especially with regard to retention, that pegs everyone at the same rate. That would be inherently unfair. The problem with holding institutions too accountable on the retention line is that institutions may opt for increasing their admissions criteria and closing the door on lesser-prepared students. This is a real problem that is already playing out in at least one four-year institutions in Colorado.


10. Why are private, not-for profit colleges generally more successful in retaining and graduation students of color?

It depends on which private, not-for-profit colleges we speak of. For those with larger endowments, they have the fiscal resources to provide the academic and social resources to support students with need. Additionally, those that are more selective, and many of these institutions reside in that category, “cherry pick” the best students of color.

But there also exists an attitude at many of these campuses of providing hands-on services to students; using peer tutoring opportunities, and ensuring that freshman students receive the services necessary to succeed.


11. How can a school change its campus climate? (CU has had several racial incidents over the past few years, and has a reputation as an unwelcoming environment for minorities.  The institution has hosted several of its own task force meetings over the past few months, so it is keenly aware of its shortcomings–and is sensitive to further negative publicity)

By making it a priority from the campus leadership down. If it isn’t seen as a priority, it simply won’t happen. Second, there has to be buy in from all stakeholders on campus, including faculty AND students. This is a typical change management issue for institutions. But campuses can change if they follow good change management strategies.



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