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Opinion: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Students In U.S. Higher Education

It was every administrator’s dream: two conferences in one week. One focused on measuring student-learning outcomes, the other on effective leadership in community colleges. In both meetings, the question of who can, does and should have access to higher education arose. Many assume the answer is that all students deserve a college education. This is a fraught assumption. Higher education in the United States was transported from Europe and was a system that served to control which social classes had access to knowledge and the opportunity to contribute to the generation of knowledge.

At some point, the assumption was born that higher education is for all. Yet the original model of higher education and its exclusive structures and traditions have been steadfast even though the landscape of higher education shifted. The higher education paradigm works well for those who inherit the legacy of a college education. But as the demographics of those who comprise colleges shift, there has been no move to make the culture more inclusive. Rather, the student must fit our narrow cultural norms.

This paradox is difficult to negotiate for those of us whose work involves diversity. Yes, there have been measurable benefits to diversity efforts. We have seen increases in the presence of underrepresented students on American campuses. The Obama administration, philanthropists and public and private-sector leaders are investing in this area as they call for 60 percent of Americans to attain college degrees. The competition for this group of students is fierce, and institutions recognize the need to step up financially in order to recruit them. Yet while a few visionary institutions recognize that excellence relies on the talents of all, many institutions seek diversity out of a sense of duty, compliance, guilt or to help majority students be better prepared for the real world.

Philosophically, we are marching toward expanding opportunities for underrepresented populations. Historically, however, higher education is securely grounded in granting limited and exclusive access to the system. How do we reconcile this new movement and a centuries-old system?  In his forthcoming book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Dr. Richard Arum finds that the achievement gap between Whites and students of color increases, especially between African-Americans and Whites, throughout their college experiences. Yes, college exacerbates the learning gap between students. While Arum offers a new way of exploring student outcomes, we’ve long known that the college graduation rates for students of color (43 percent) lag behind those of Whites (63 percent), according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007.

There has been significant discussion around why these discrepancies in outcomes and graduation rates exist. The consensus by some is that students of color don’t fit into the higher education culture. However, the question needs to ask how could, and should, higher education be realigned to support all students. Given its history, higher education is what is unprepared in this equation, not students.

Perhaps part of the reason for-profits enrolled more than 1 million students in 2009 is because they function outside of the traditional higher education framework. While we may want to disregard for-profits, their numbers are growing. Traditional colleges and universities have an overall enrollment of about 14 percent African-American; the for-profit sector enrolls 27 percent. We are right to be suspicious of their tactics but they have done an outstanding job of appealing to a market traditional higher ed hasn’t infiltrated.

My most unsatisfactory conclusion is that access and retention are necessary, but not sufficient, lenses through which we should view the success of diversity efforts in higher education. We have to pay attention to outcomes as measured by learning gains — as Arum demands — and graduation and employment rates, as we should all demand. My first recommendation is higher education has to be accountable for student outcomes. Until higher education is held accountable for learning outcomes and graduation rates of all students, we have solved only half the equation. While higher education accrediting bodies are actively promoting learning outcomes, the public must hold higher ed accountable for outcomes and graduation rates as well. Consistent failure to reach benchmarks should result in reallocation of resources.

Until there is a significant cultural shift in higher education, wherein the emphasis on access and retention is matched by making higher education relevant and responsive to those walking through the door, we will continue to fail diverse students. My second recommendation is higher education must create inclusive environments that support diverse students. We have to explore those exclusionary traditions that hinder students from learning. We must stop trying to fit students to match a system that was never created for them and was, in fact, intended to discard or constrain them.

Unless we begin to identify and reconfigure colleges and universities, we will  continue to see large disparities between students because they are having largely disparate experiences. If we fail to rethink higher education, we will continue to replicate its inequities in increasing proportions.  

 — Dr. Mary Hinton is associate vice president of academic affairs and chief planning and diversity officer at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. You can write Dr. Hinton at  [email protected].


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