Retention depends on new models of student development
In the last decade, there has been a steady increase in the overall enrollment of Black students in higher education. And while enrollment at historically Black colleges in the United States experienced a dramatic increase during this time, the majority of African-heritage students currently attending college are found at predominantly White institutions.
While increased enrollment should be greeted as good news, retention literature indicates an alarming decrease in the persistence and graduation rates of African-heritage students at historically non-Black campuses. Only one-third to one-half of African-heritage students who enroll at traditionally White schools leave with degrees.
African-heritage students with strong academic backgrounds drop out at rates higher than those of their less-prepared European-heritage counterparts. Even when criteria for admission remain constant, African-heritage students still drop out in more significant numbers.
This suggests that academic preparedness, although significant, does not guarantee that African-heritage students will persist until graduation. We are left then, to explain these disproportionate admission and retention rates.
Much research has been done on “minority” student retention and many factors have been found to affect students’ attrition rates. Research grounded in the experience of thousands of African-heritage students has shown that persistence and academic success have as much to do with social interactions and social adjustment in the college setting as do variables such as socioeconomic background and academic preparedness. One significant factor affecting adjustment and interactions within campus environments centers on the interpersonal elements of college life.
The Pan-Africanist educator and social scientist W.E.B. DuBois prophesied that “the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line.” In 1968, the Kerner Commission reported that the United States was moving toward two “separate and unequal” societies, divided along racial lines. As the 21st century dawns, educators face the question; “Will this next century also be driven by the color line?”
This is where student-affairs professionals can come in. Student development models guide student-affairs professionals. These models — including psychological, psychosocial and sociocultural, to name just a few — address the nature of the human- and student-development process. Being grounded in and guided by these various models provides a tool for student-affairs professionals to potentially affect all students’ academic development, social adjustment and success.
However, the so-called traditional student development models are mostly based on Eurocentric world views and have repeatedly failed to adequately address the needs of nontraditional students, including those of African heritage and other students of color. These theories gained prominence between 1950 and 1970 and formed the basis of student development practices in the 1980s and 1990s.
The time period in which these theories were formed and models were developed stretched from years prior to the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case into the 1960s and early ’70s. This was a period when African-heritage students began to gain access in numbers to formerly all-White institutions. So the fact that these models do not take into consideration many of the needs and experiences of African-heritage students can be understood in historical context.
Notwithstanding, it’s a new day; indeed, a new century.
The trends of the past few decades and projected demographics of institutions of higher education for this decade and beyond reflect a significant increase in enrollment of students of color. Given present attrition rates and projected demographic changes, higher-education administrators acknowledge that this multiethnic student population needs to be managed in a very different way than previously.
This concern and need for action to address the retention of African-heritage and other nontraditional students requires that student-affairs professionals work together with academic affairs to develop, implement and refine new, more culturally inclusive student-learning and student-development models.
There are many such models already available and there are many active American College Personnel Association members — such as Drs. Harold E. Cheatham, Michael Cuyjet and Dawn Person — who have published research in this area.
The American College Personnel Association, independently and in partnership with our sister organization, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, has been involved in a number of efforts. The collective goal of these student-affairs professionals is to help facilitate students’ academic development and social adjustment.
The persistence and graduation rates of future generations of students are at stake. The need to address salient issues to facilitate the success of all students and develop more inclusive culturally based student development models and institutional policies is the right thing to do and an issue of institutional and societal survival.
— Dr. Khandi Bourne-Bowie is director for development and public relations at the American College Personnel Association. She also is a consultant with Bourne, Bowie and Associates and was formerly a student-affairs professional at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
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