A growing body of research has shown that race-matched instruction—when teachers and learners come from the same background—is beneficial for students. College students have been shown to be likelier to pass courses with race-matched instructors, likelier to receive higher grades in those courses, and likelier to persist in school. Race-matched students were also more likely to take an additional class in that subject and to major in it. The benefits of matching are evident for all students, including white ones, but have shown to be particularly strong for minoritized students. However, a recent working paper has shown that students of color are far less likely to experience these advantages.
From a sample of over 560,000 first year, first time community college students and over 32,000 instructors in Texas between 2013 and 2020, researchers found that 77% of white students experienced a racial match. However, only 29% of Hispanic students and 14% of Black students had the same.
The team of researchers, led by Dr. Taylor Odle, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found even lower levels of matching in crucial first courses in subjects like reading and writing, as well as gateway classes like algebra. Only 4% of Black students matched in reading and writing courses and only 6% in non-STEM math courses.
Black and Hispanic students had the highest match rates in remedial and developmental courses: 34% for Hispanic students and 17% for Black students. However, Odle’s team found that the faculty in these matches were more likely to be temporary staff or adjuncts, rather than tenured or tenure-track. Although contingent faculty may be equally good teachers as tenured faculty, their positions might limit them as mentors for students of color.
“Individuals in those positions have the least power and stability,” said Dr. Kimberly A. Griffin, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Maryland. “They might be working from year to year or semester to semester, so it might be harder to build long-term relationships. They’re less likely to have consistent office space on campus. They might have multiple roles at multiple institutions, so they might be more stretched in terms of their time. And these folks have the least ability to open doors for the students they’re working with.”
For Odle, the reason for the match disparity was clear: a lack of faculty diversity. In his team’s sample, 48% of the students were Hispanic and 11% were Black. But only 16% of professors were Hispanic and 10% were Black. According to Griffin, this is a long-standing nationwide problem.
“Our country is diversifying quickly,” she said. “But we’re not seeing that shift in the faculty. There haven’t really been the gains that we would have hoped for in Black and Latinx faculty in the last 40 years.”
The reasons for this are complex products of the racism threaded through American society.
“There’s literally a dozen different inflection points along that path to becoming a professor, obstacles that require early interventions that won’t show any results for a long time,” said Dr. Seth Gershenson, a professor of public policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs. These obstacles include everything from discriminatory funding of public schools to personal biases. Fixing the pipeline is a long-term problem, but according to Gershenson, institutions can also act now.
“Schools need to do a better job of retaining the faculty of color that they have,” he said. “That means making sure that people get tenure and stay in academia. For non-tenure track positions, it means paying a reasonable wage and giving a reasonable workload and a pleasant work environment.”
There are also things that institutions can do to increase matches between students of color and the current faculty. Odle recommended making students more aware of what classes are being taught by faculty of color so that they can “opt in” to matches. He also suggested developing support programs that establish relationships between students of color and faculty of color who are not their instructors, offering the faculty course buyouts to compensate for the extra work. Gershenson advocated for additional guest speakers of color.
“Even small, one-off exposures matter,” he said.
Gershenson and Griffin agreed that white faculty also need better training to teach and mentor an increasingly diverse student body.
“Some of that might be implicit bias training or empathy training that helps professors better relate to their students,” said Gershenson. “I think we could bring about better outcomes for all students if we thought about some of the culturally engaging practices that Black and Latinx faculty members seem more likely to employ.”
“Creating an opportunity for students to share their full selves in a mentoring space is important,” said Griffin. “I often refer to it as opening the door for identity to enter the room and letting the student decide whether or not it’s going to.”
Some of these solutions are trickier—and more expensive—than others. But Odle’s stark findings show that, for minoritized students, quick action is imperative.
“There is something unique that happens when a student of color is taught by somebody that shares their identity, and we want to make sure that as many students have access to that as possible,” said Griffin. “We can’t just wait until the faculty becomes more diverse.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com.