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Creating a More Successful College Experience for Black Students

Grover McDaniel, Ph.D.Grover McDaniel, Ph.D.

In order for Black students, who are traditionally marginalized and excluded, to enter higher education and succeed, they need to learn how to participate fully in the academic environment. Oftentimes these students start college, but leave during the first semester because they feel as if they cannot make it in the White-dominated college environment.

They enter the environment mostly under prepared, and their dreams of earning a degree quickly fade as the realization of higher education’s expectations upon them are difficult, if impossible to meet and they end up becoming part of the some 30% of minority college students who enter college but do not earn their degrees.

Burke and Johnston suggest that in order to tame the violent flames of inequity in educational accessibility, we first need to begin to prepare students early for a postsecondary academic environment. This does suggest that teachers in elementary, middle and high school need to expect that all of their students will enter postsecondary education and teach accordingly. Next, they suggest that college faculty need to transform their experiences and expectations by including the Black students and engaging them during instruction.

Programs and policies to promote black student success

If a campus wishes to enrich the learning environment of its students and faculty, special care needs to be taken in creating developmental programs and increasing minority retention.

One way is by making sure that the program is diverse itself, meaning that administrators and educators need to look at the school’s mission, vision, values, structures, policies and resources to make sure diversity is emphasized, and if not, then efforts need to be made to change. Ultimately, the focus of the curriculum should be firmly committed to social justice and equal educational opportunity for every student. Part of this is employing and recruiting minority instructors who are of high quality and possess the desire to educate in a diverse population.

While it is important for minority students to feel part of a community, if their instructors are not prepared and/or willing to teach them, then the students may fail anyway. Many teachers lack any training in multicultural learning. Smith, Echols and Thomas found that just about one-half of the higher educational institutions in the United States offer any training in multiculturalism (cited in Blunt, 2006). Thus, teachers who are untrained usually do not talk about ethnicity or any issues affecting world diversity because their experiences are limited and often a result of stereotypical textbooks and predominantly White, mainstream educational experiences.

Melnick and Zeichner noted that cultural experience training seems to be missing often from the mostly White, professional workforce and that teachers usually come from very mainstream backgrounds, where their goals are idealistic and lack any exposure that could help them deal with any intercultural environments.

Inside the classroom

Multicultural literacy, as discussed by Weil means examining teachers’ ethnocentricity as a factor that limits their students and their own intellectual character. He asserts that much of what people have learned to believe, without criticism or question, has been taken by powerful authorities such as families, teachers, educational institutions, friends, pop culture, and importantly, the media.

Often people never look at this knowledge with a critical eye, and they integrate this knowledge as if it were created by them alone, which makes people decide what to believe and how to react at any given moment. In a sense, this type of uncritical, surrogate thinking becomes part of the authoritarian, powerful manipulation of mainstream, White ideologies. Instead, Weil suggests that people must develop critical reasoning within the context of diverse cultural viewpoints because without this knowledge, they will accomplish very little in terms of changing the world in which they live.

A study was performed by Okpala and Ellis that studied 218 students, 78 percen of whom were Black, on their perceptions of quality teaching. Thirty-nine percent responded by stating that caring for students and their learning was a notable part of a quality educator, while 34 percent responded with teaching skills. When the students were asked to identify the four most important qualities of a quality teacher, caring scored the highest at 89.6 percent, teaching skills next at 83.2 percent, content knowledge was third at 76.8 percent and dedication to teaching was fourth at 75.3 percent. Since a very small percentage of this population was White, one can fairly accurately attest that the attitude of the teacher is incredibly important for students of color.

Coalition pedagogy

Pimentel and Pimentel offer suggestions to implement coalition pedagogy in both diverse and predominantly White classrooms. Even if the instructor is White and does not support the dominant, political ideologies, the instructor can still relate to his or her Black students by sharing his or her political viewpoint to begin establishing a relationship with these students. Establishing these relationships supports a strong rapport and trust and will eventually lead the Black student, or other students of color, to share their viewpoints.

Coalition pedagogy encourages instructors to air their identities and viewpoints so that students can clearly see a relationship with the instructor and empowerment. What might happen is that the students of color will become more vocal, and the White students may feel uncomfortable, but even though this may happen, the White students inevitably leave with enhanced learning experiences. Coalition pedagogy exposes oppressive systems and encourages students to participate in their learning and in the deconstruction of political contexts and dominant cultural formations in society and in schools.

The only way for a change in society is for people to fight against inequity. In order to fight, people need to be aware, and in order to be aware, people need experience in oppression and the lives of those who live it. Coalition pedagogy provides this experience and awareness.

Black students make up a very large majority of our student population, but are one of the largest populations to leave higher education without succeeding. This is a problem.

The power to change this trend lies in the hands of both institutions that need to change their policies and hiring practices, as well as in the hands of educators who can transform their own viewpoints and interactions with students. After all, in order to ensure the future success of our country and the effectiveness of a changing democracy, every citizen needs to have a voice and needs power of participation. Giving postsecondary education access and success to our Black students is one small step to the large goal of full and equal participation in American society.


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Dr. Grover McDaniel is a Course Mentor (Business) at Western Governors University.

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