Adapting to Serve Inner-City StudentsMarybeth Gasman | Director of Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, University of Pennsylvania
The following interview is with Marybeth Gasman, director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania. Throughout her career, Gasman has focused on higher education for underserved and minority groups. Much has been written over the past few years about the importance of creating more access to higher education for the historically underserved minority populations living in inner cities, but little has been done to address the issues facing their postsecondary access and success. In this interview, Gasman discusses some of the most significant issues students from inner cities face when it comes to enrolling in higher education and shares her thoughts on strategies higher education institutions can put in place to better serve this student population.
1. What are the most significant challenges higher education institutions face when it comes to increasing accessibility for inner-city youth?
The first thing you have to think about is what [the term] “inner-city youth” means. For most people, “inner city youth” means they’re low income and often underprepared, although there are lots of youth in inner cities that are doing just fine.
There are quite a few institutions that don’t really care about these students. They tend not to focus on them because they feel like they’re underprepared to the point they can’t attend their institutions. Income is one of the things that really keeps students from achieving their goals and it’s the number-one thing that correlates with graduation rates. If you have low-income students, you really have to put extra money into making sure they graduate.
2. What are the most significant roadblocks these students face to their persistence and postsecondary success?
There are a variety of barriers. One thing we know, especially about low-income students of color in urban areas, is that they face a lot more stressors than white students. Part of that is because they don’t necessarily have a safety net and they also are facing racism and discrimination almost on a daily basis. All you have to do is look on Facebook or Twitter or watch the media and you can see there’s racial profiling, there’s discrimination, there are also people who are living at or below the poverty line — and those things make it really difficult to get to college and to stay in college.
Some of the other things students of color — especially from low-income areas — deal with is they don’t know anything about college and what it means. For me, I came from a really low-income background. I was the first one of my family to go [to college], so no one was there to tell me how it works.
Another thing I would say is that they’re often ostracized in classrooms, meaning they’re singled out, they’re not included in conversation [and] they sometimes never see faculty who look like them, which makes a really big difference. That’s why minority-serving institutions tend to do really well, because they provide same-race role models who can be wonderfully uplifting to students of color.
Across the board, there are many things you’re dealing with, but the biggest thing is not having a safety net to fall back on. If you’re from an upper or middle-class family and something happens while in college, you can call your parents. That’s not always the case with low-income students.
3. What are some strategies colleges and universities can put in place to better serve and support inner-city students?
Most majority institutions, they’re not diverse. I hear people over and over say things like, “We just can’t find people.” That’s bull; there are lots of people out there. The problem is they can’t find people that fit their mold, and they have certain definitions of what fits.
The other thing is Summer Bridge programs have shown to be really successful. Those are the programs where a student comes early before their freshman year and they learn how to be a college student. For students who have never been on a college campus, whose parents didn’t go to college, Summer Bridge is a great opportunity to meet people ahead of time. You usually get a few extra credits, you learn how to study [and] you even get to learn all about the campus so that you don’t end up getting lost. You also end up typically with an advisor or a mentor to help you.
Peer mentoring is very important. That’s another avenue for students, especially low-income students, [to have] someone to go to when maybe they feel like they’re at their wit’s end. A lot of low-income students end up getting an email saying, “You can’t register for classes because your bills aren’t paid.” I got them. You need someone who can help you navigate the bureaucracy of most colleges and universities.
4. What are some of the low-hanging fruits an institution can take care of quickly to remove some of these barriers at a relatively low cost or relatively easily?
One of the things I find is that there are all these rules that really don’t need to be there or be followed; they tend to keep people out. I find them all the time, no matter what university I’m at. I find these little things I have to push out of the way, especially for my students of color, my low-income students. I say listen to students [and] ask them, “Where are the roadblocks, where did you get tripped up?”
Another thing is that if you have people constantly getting complaints for the way they treat students, get rid of them. You don’t need them. They’re not only mistreating your students, they’re mistreating your future alumni.
Reward faculty for good advising and good teaching instead of only focusing on research. Direct a little bit of those rewards to faculty who actually are on the front lines and care about students and are working with them. Again, bring up the peer mentoring idea.
There are lots of things like that you can do. You can also set up forums on social media which are also free. You can get people talking and create an environment about what to do if you can’t get home for the holidays and the dorms are closed, because this is a problem low-income students have. There are all kinds of things like that.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator