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Opinion: Recruiting Students of Color to Predominantly White Campuses

Despite the gains in minority student enrollment over the last four decades—Black and Hispanic students accounted for 13.1 and 11.4 percent, respectively, of enrollment at degree-granting institutions in 2007, up from 9.4 and 3.5 percent in 1976—students of color remain underrepresented at traditionally White institutions (TWIs). And those students of color who have decided to attend a TWI may still feel isolated and unwelcome on campus. A 2009 study in The Review of Higher Education found that 51 percent of African-American students were more likely than others to be dissatisfied with the level of diversity at TWIs.  A racially diverse student body has become a critical component of overall student satisfaction so TWIs have to reverse a tradition that is rooted in their educational systems and often reflected in their programs and organizations.

Recently, I have been on several interviews at TWIs as I searched for a deanship in a school, department or college of education. As a candidate for dean and possibly because I am a person of color, I am invariably asked how to recruit and retain students of color. The recruitment and retention of students and faculty of color seemed to be a pervasive concern at the TWIs at which I interviewed. Interview teams and faculty recounted trends of low enrollment and concerns with persistence. My answer to the recruitment-and-retention question is always, “It depends.” It depends on the practices, protocols, policies and procedures that are established at these institutions regarding what I call the AAA of recruitment and retention of students of color. The institutions need to eliminate barriers to access, create an affirming environment and curriculum, and maximize affinity opportunities.

Colleges and universities must first review their admissions policies to eliminate barriers to access as well as their retention practices to remove obstacles to success. Please note, this does not mean lowering expectations but recognizing, for instance, that a foreign language proficiency requirement should include Hmong, Somali and other non-Romance languages. In the case of persistence and retention, administrators should reconsider whether “gate keeping” courses that weed students out should become “gateway” courses that provide students with academic navigational skills that would enable them to succeed in future courses.

Admissions offices should also view diversity as a value-added commodity that can enhance the viability of all college and university programs and accommodate for this asset in a holistic assessment of a prospective student’s profile. Focusing solely on a numerical admissions policy, such as high school GPA and ACT/SAT scores, negates the value-added asset factor. One college eliminated access barriers by simply following up on incomplete applications of students of color and providing advice and counseling assistance. Another university worked with pre-applicants to assist them in amplifying their strengths that were not necessarily academic in nature, such as an applicant’s commitment to equity, social justice and inclusivity—qualities that many colleges and universities are trying to instill in students.

Affirmation is embedded in how the college or university presents itself to potential students of color. Do students feel welcomed and affirmed through the interactions they have with admissions counselors, residential life staff and visits with faculty? Do students of color see their history and culture represented in the course offerings or embedded in the curriculum? Are there student organizations and support personnel specifically hired to understand what it takes to overtly navigate the nuances of a traditionally White institution? Affirmation goes beyond a multicultural web presence. Students of color want visceral, not virtual, experiences. Historically, schools have found that adding a Black studies department, for instance, has attracted students of color and serves as demonstrative evidence that the institution is engaged in programs, practices and policies that are focused on diversity, equity and inclusivity. These colleges and universities can show measures of success related to diversity initiatives and not just rhetorical stances.

If barriers to access and success are eliminated and affirmation has a palpable presence on the campus, then affinity will follow. Affinity is established when a critical mass of students of color is recognizable in the daily milieu of the campus. Periodically, I do a “360 test” during peak hours at populated places on my campus. I stop, execute a 360-degree visual scan of the area, and try to count at least 1 in 10 students of color. This visual scan would confirm that at least 10 percent of the population on a TWI campus is a person of color. This is usually not the case, but the task serves as a reminder that much work has yet to be done. When there is a critical mass of students of color on campus, potential students of color will see affinity and view the institution as a possible academic home.

So when I am asked how to recruit and retain students of color to traditionally White institutions, I ask that the institutional members ask themselves, “What do we have to offer them? Can they gain access, find affirmation and see affinity?” 

— Dr. Dwight C. Watson is dean of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa.

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