Published on 2016/03/21

Overcoming the Obstacles: Student-Centricity Critical to Traditionally Underserved Student Success

The EvoLLLution | Overcoming the Obstacles: Student-Centricity Critical to Traditionally Underserved Student Success
Insufficient Pell Grant funding, time-consuming and expensive remedial programming and the institution-centric mindset of college and university leaders create a number of obstacles to postsecondary success for traditionally underserved students.

Creating postsecondary access and success pathways are a stated goal of many colleges and universities, but there are some structural obstacles that tend to minimize the positive impact of these efforts. Institution-centricity and the lack of understanding of the needs and experiences of traditionally underserved students have a tendency to create significant roadblocks to persistence and success for this demographic. In this interview, Jose Luis Santos reflects on some of the most significant challenges these students face in higher education and shares his thoughts on how institutions can help them stay on track to completion.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most significant roadblocks to access for underrepresented student demographics and non-traditional students?

Jose Luis Santos (JLS): There are several roadblocks, but the most significant are affordability, preparedness and the lack of social and cultural capital. The rapid escalation in the cost of going to college—increases that far outpace the growth in family income—have been oppressively burdensome for all Americans, but especially for those from low-income families. Declining state support for higher education is partly responsible. But so, too, are shifts in federal, state and institutional spending on student aid, with dollars going up, but decreasing fractions of those dollars being spent on the students who need them the most. The rising cost of college is simply pricing many students out of a college education.

Another roadblock to access is preparedness. Low-income and traditionally underrepresented minority students too often come from substandard and under-resourced schools and they often lack adequate preparation for college-level work. So, many of those eager students who are fortunate enough to arrive at college doorsteps enter needing remediation.

Additionally, first-generation students tend to lack a good understanding of what it takes to get into, or succeed in, college. They don’t know which institutions will best serve them, and are often limited to attending colleges that are close to home, potentially leading to undermatching.

Evo: Following on this, what are the most significant barriers to retention and success for those students who do find pathways into the institution?

JLS: Once the aforementioned students get to colleges, the barriers parallel those that keep them from accessing a quality higher education in general. The need for remediation—where students take non-credit courses that help them “catch up”—hinders their ability to accumulate enough credits to graduate on time. In such cases, it can take six-plus years for students to graduate, but those additional years spent in school are not free. So, once again, affordability becomes an issue.

There’s also a lack of good advising at institutions. For many students, there’s no clear map for getting from point A to point B; there’s no real course mapping. Students who have a hard time navigating may end up taking classes that don’t count toward a degree.

An additional barrier to retention and success are the dearth of mechanisms on campus to alert advisers and students when these roadblocks are pushing students off track. And the burden of success is often borne solely by the student, when the institution should also bear responsibility.

Evo: How would expanding the Pell Grant help to overcome some of these significant barriers?

JLS: The maximum Pell Grant once covered more than half the cost of attending a four-year public college in the 1980s. But it has nowhere near that buying power now. Even with recent increases to the Pell program, the $5,775 maximum Pell Grant in 2015-16 is expected to cover less than one-third of the cost of college, which is the lowest in more than 40 years.

This can have a devastating impact on low-income students who need real help to attend and finish college. Consider this: Even after grant aid from all sources is included, students from low-income families must find a way to finance an amount equivalent to 76 percent of their family income, while the highest income students have to set aside only 17 percent of their family income — the weight of covering college costs is hardly felt equally.

College affordability is one of the main reasons low-income students do not finish their education. Expanding the Pell program will give more students a real opportunity of earning a college degree.

Evo: What are a few other measures institutions could take to drive success for these demographics?

JLS: Institutions, particularly those enrolling large numbers of low-income students and students of color, could absolutely be more intentional. They should be able to address the areas where these students struggle the most—from instituting a plan to prevent withdrawals, drops and failures to addressing remediation needs (e.g., co-requisite remediation or remediation classes that count toward the student’s major).

Colleges and universities should provide guided pathways for students, with structured degree plans that literally map out every semester for their entire course of study. Essentially, this would provide students with a list of courses to take within a meta major that they can narrow further into their chosen major. If these structured degree plans are coherent and course sequences are clear, this will allow students to predict with certainty what it takes to stay on track and graduate on time. For this to work, milestone courses need to be available. These measures should be laid out upfront, and institutional leaders should make sure it’s understood institution-wide. In addition, these guided pathways should have early alert systems to alert advisers and students when students fall behind in order to ensure timely intervention.

Also, institutional leadership must build a culture that’s intentional and embraces student success. A large part of that is looking at data in new ways to drive decision-making for student success, not just for reporting and compliance purposes.

Evo: Why is a student-centric mindset critical for those colleges and universities that aim to serve these non-traditional demographics?

JLS: A student-centric mindset is key for any institution to better serve the students it enrolls, whether they are poor or non-traditional students or underrepresented minorities. If institutional leaders are serious about student success for these types of students, they need to shift their mindset to one that values the needs of students. To do this successfully, institutional leaders must create an institution-wide culture on their campuses that embraces student success and the use of data to drive student success.

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Key Takeaways

  • Traditionally underserved student demographics enter higher education after having overcome numerous obstacles, but face great challenges in the postsecondary space en route to their degree.
  • Remediation and insufficient Pell Grant funding create unnecessary obstacles to completion that often lead underserved students to stop or drop out.
  • Institutional leaders need to focus on what it takes to transform their colleges and universities into truly student-centric organizations focused on learner progress and success.
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