Published on 2014/04/24

Making Higher Education Work for Underserved Students

AUDIO | Making Higher Education Work for Underserved Students
Creating pathways and opportunities for postsecondary success among underserved populations is critical to the mission of building human capital.

The following interview is with Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, a non-profit organization focused on accelerating Latino success in higher education. At the recent University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) Conference in Miami, Brown gave a keynote presentation focused on strategies to support Latino student success at postsecondary institutions. In this interview, she expands on that topic and discusses the importance of ensuring institutions are focused on driving enrollment and retention of first-generation students from underserved communities.

1. Why is it critically important for institutions to support postsecondary success for members of underserved communities?

The pursuit of anyone’s productive life in this country and in this planet right now requires formal education beyond high school. Looking at college as a requirement rather than a luxury is how we approach this discussion.

The perspective of inclusion of students of color and underserved populations is because, in this economy and in this environment, we need everyone to participate. If we are comfortable with the kind of participation rates we have — because it’s always been that way — we have to think again.

In America, the numbers of Latinos in American society is large and growing. And yet the achievement gap for Latino students and for African-Americans has remained pretty much the same.

2. Looking specifically at the Latino community, what are some strategies institutions could put into place to increase enrollments among these students?

The good news is there are many things that can be done and the availability of these strategies is made easier by a database that Excelencia in Education makes available called Growing What Works. …

For Latino [students], the aspect of being first in their family to go to college is very strong. And so when a recruiter from a postsecondary institution is talking to a student, they’re well served to actually talk with the whole family. Not only does that increase the likelihood that the student will enroll, but we’ve seen in many cases it also encourages parents, older children, to pursue college education. Those are things at the front end in terms of enrolment.

Equally important is what happens when students are enrolled; how to make them feel welcome, how to make sure that your divisions of student affairs, that your clubs and activities, are aware that you have students coming into the classroom with multiple language skills, with frames of reference that [are] not only a commitment to their education but often times a commitment to work while being enrolled.

Institutions that respond with flexibility but also support those kinds of aspirations are always successful in keeping the student’s interest

3. How do the strategies that support academic success for the Latino community differ from those that would support success within other underserved populations?

What we have found is that the dynamics of change for an institution and what they focus on to be more effective in serving students is usually focused on … first-generation college goers. There’s just an abundance of assumptions that our normal structures of higher education make about what students know and what their families know about going to college and succeeding in college. … That aspect of first-generation college goers — that’s a universal.

But then when you look at the issue of Latino students and what it is they prefer or they gravitate towards, many Latino students choose to go to college within 50 miles of where they grow up. That, of course, creates all kinds of dynamics and challenges.

If yours is an institution that is close to a large and growing Latino community, the likelihood your Latino enrolment will grow is very high because of this dynamic. If you’re an institution far away but eager to seek new talent and are aware that you have Latino students choosing to stay close to home, it means you have to be … intrusive in your recruitment strategies. You have to develop a rapport with the students and with their families by visiting early and often.

This aspect of recruitment is one of the things we would raise up to everyone seeking to create relationships with Latino students and [their] families.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about what institutions can do to better serve underserved students and underserved communities through creating access and encouraging success in higher education?

Well, there’s three things I would want to raise up right now.

One is to ask this question internally. Every institution of higher education collects a lot of data. Sometimes it’s for external reporting purposes; rarely is it data that … faculty and administrators consider. This is really a fundamental aspect of bettering the environment for serving underserved populations. You have to confront it, you have to look at your own data, and you have to consider who you serve well. You have to ask why those students that are leaving without degrees, not performing academically, not fully participating, what is it you can do about it? I don’t think it’s something you do once a year. I think it’s a capacity to which the institution really considers with the data that it has available: what is their impact?

In terms of Excelencia and your audience, you would want very much for those institutions who listen to this and are thinking about this issue of serving the underserved to say, “We do that” or “Here’s something that we do that would answer that question.” We want to hear about it. Developing a community of action, a community of change agents, is one of the things we spend a lot of time doing. A vehicle for doing that is our Examples of Excelencia. This is an open call for nominations. It is up and running right now [on our website] and will close on April 25.

Finally, education is the pathway to upward mobility and for this country, for this world, to continue to thrive; our most precious resource is human capital. Human capital is best served through our educational system. So for all of us, this one is non-negotiable: our capacity to serve all the students who seek admission and who seek to make something of their lives is a shared responsibility.

To submit a nomination for the 2014 Examples of Excelencia award, please click here. The deadline for nominations is April 25, 2014.

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Key Takeaways

  • Institutions looking to enroll more first-generation students should focus on developing relationships not just with the prospective students, but with their families.
  • Latino students typically enroll in postsecondary institutions within 50 miles of their home, which has significant implications for colleges and universities looking to target and serve this growing market.
  • Ensuring institutions focus not just on enrollment, but retention, of students from underserved communities is a critical step toward strengthening those communities and the economy.

Readers Comments

Anthony Day 2014/04/24 at 10:53 am

I’m hopeful that institutions that choose to purposefully recruit underserved populations are committed to supporting them through graduation. The issue is that many institutions have become skilled at recruiting a diverse population of students, but do not recognize their need for diverse services/supports once they reach campus. This results in frustration for the underserved students, who typically require extensive specialized support, and can contribute to their stopping out if left uncorrected.

h estevez 2014/04/24 at 1:29 pm

The example Brown provides of the recruitment of Latino students demonstrates the need for institutions to be trained in cultural competency. Different strategies will work on different students, and all institutions should be committed to serving a diverse group of them in ways they understand/relate to.

g s c 2014/04/25 at 10:31 am

Great interview.

I would add that within an underserved group is a diversity of experiences, skills and expectations. Institutions should also pay attention to that rather than grouping all students of that underserved population together. One way to overcome the temptation to generalize is to treat all students as individuals and develop specialized, responsive supports.

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