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Addressing the Barriers to Success for Underserved Students

Addressing the Barriers to Success for Underserved Students
By understanding and addressing the reasons non-traditional and underserved students struggle in higher education, institutions can minimize these issues and help close the achievement gap.

The following interview is with Omid Fotuhi, a project manager and researcher at the Stanford University’s Interventions Lab. Fotuhi’s work focuses on finding ways to scale interventions proven to boost students’ achievement and well-being, while narrowing group disparities, in the higher education context. In the first installment of this two-part Q&A, Fotuhi discussed the problems lack of social belonging caused for underserved, non-traditional students. In this conclusion, he shares his thoughts on how institutions can help students to overcome these obstacles.

3. Why is it critical for higher education institutions to better serve this student segment?

Our educational institutions are served a really tall order. They’re asked to equip students with the tools that they need to survive and thrive in the real world. This requires a complex system of intense investment where you have schools that are not able to meet these expectations. Here in California, for example, we know that there are some schools that have graduation rates that are very low, sometimes nearing as low as 30 percent. That’s a big deal. Importantly, the failure to serve this population is one of the major contributing factors to why some of these groups are negatively affected by the stereotypes that are prevalent. These are really strong forces that can have a meaningful impact on students.

The way that we’ll make progress is by promoting outcomes amongst the people whose parents didn’t go to college, the immigrants, the minorities, the low-income groups. This is the way that we’ve always moved ahead and this is how we need to continue to move ahead. It’s not by doubling down on those who are educated; it’s by really trying to tackle the individuals who are struggling for various reasons to make sure that we as an entire nation are able to move forward.

4. What can higher education institutions do to support feelings of social belonging among non-traditional underserved students?

We know that some of the academically at-risk students who feel that sense of connectedness are typically the ones that cope better. At-risk students who participate in extra-curricular activities with friends and faculty, which essentially facilitates their sense of social integration in school, are less likely to drop out in school. This has to do with a number of factors. Most important in my mind is the sense that they feel that they are valued and they have close connections with the people in that institution.

By providing students with more adaptive expectations, this gives people ways to understand adversity in more adaptive ways, and we know from the research this is a way that we can help students better cope in that environment.

[The research shows] students who are making this transition are able to learn and understand the feelings of uncertainly, that the intense feelings of anxiety that they have in their transition from high school to college are things that are not going to persist. With time and through adaptive strategies, they can learn to move and navigate through these issues.

A lot of educators and administrators are now thinking along these lines in terms of what high-impact practices they can incorporate into their teaching, into their communications for schools, to really give students a sense that they’re welcome to explore, to challenge themselves. This requires a certain level of effort, of investment, but the impact is significant and more and more people are recognizing the needs of these kinds of efforts to allow students to feel connected with the schools that they’re in.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of better serving underserved populations and what creating a feeling of social belonging can do for degree attainment among this population?

Many of us who are thinking about this problem recognize long-standing and persistent achievement gaps that we’ve noticed throughout the years which did not seem to be getting any better any time soon. There have been some programs that are now starting to illustrate the reasons why some of these achievement gaps exist, some of the psychological reasons why these achievement gaps can exist and that understanding is a really crucial starting point.

Once you understand the reasons why these achievement gaps exist, you can start to leverage that understanding to create programs, create interventions that can carefully and thoughtfully target those psychological barriers to help students overcome what is clearly not a deficit in skill but is a deficit in being able to psychologically cope with a new transitional environment.

The fact is higher education can be a highly competitive place and it’s certainly perceived that way by students and by institutions. Until that changes, there are ways that we can help students not feel so threatened by those institutional pressures. Ultimately any program that can thoughtfully target some of these pressures can potentially have beneficial effects for the students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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