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Understanding the Barriers to Success for Minority Students

Understanding the Barriers to Success for Minority Students
While the transition to college is difficult for all students, the lack of social belonging faced by non-traditional minority students can have a lasting negative impact on their academic success.

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 this interview, the first of two parts, he shares his thoughts on some of the most significant barriers facing non-traditional students.

1. What are some of the most significant barriers underserved students — especially those who are non-traditional — face when it comes to social belonging in postsecondary settings?

College rankings have a huge impact on the way students view some of these specific schools, but they also affect the way groups view college in general.

Before a student even steps foot on a college campus, they’re told in a very implicit way that college is a competitive place and that only the best are given recognition. Before students even have a chance to step foot onto campus, they’re given these expectations and meaning about their worth, their future expected outcomes based on the school they’re encouraged to apply to and the schools they’re accepted into.

Unfortunately, the system has negative effects not only for the students who are encouraged to apply for the less highly-ranked schools, but also the students encouraged to apply for the Ivy Leagues, because these highly selective schools are likely places where students might feel an incredible amount of pressure to prove to themselves and to others that they deserve to be there.

This is a starting place for some of these stressors and pressures. You combine that with the fact that the transition to college is extremely difficult for most students. They start to look around, they don’t know anybody and everyone else seems to be okay because they’re not talking about the same anxieties they’re sharing. Each individual starts to wonder if maybe it’s something about them as the individual that’s unique and different that’s causing them to feel this way. They may think they’re not smart enough, that they don’t belong, that they aren’t cut out to be part of this place. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is very common among students. For historically underserved students — which generally we can define as low-income students, those who are maybe the first one in their family to attend college, students of color — this added difficulty of trying to contend with some of the common stigmatization stereotypes adds to the pressure.

As you combine all of these transitional pressures and specifically look at how some groups are disadvantaged disproportionately, you start to understand how some of these pressures can really affect the students’ experience in school, how they adapt and cope in those first few weeks and the way they learned to create their own identities in school based on some of these attributions they make early on.

Belonging is really one of the core issues, and when we talk about it among ourselves we generally see belonging as following the three general categories. There’s the first one where students make attributions that they don’t belong. This is typically unlikely and it’s not usually problematic. Another form of belonging is where students don’t want to belong because of stigma with their college choice. The third thing we think is most problematic is what we call the belonging uncertainly issue where students want to belong [and]think they should belong, but they’re just not sure they do belong. If they’re part of a particular minority group, they’re more likely to ask themselves these types of questions about whether they do belong.

2. How does a lack of social belonging impact persistence and success among this student group?

A sense of belonging and a sense of social connectedness strongly predict feeling welcome in general. Perceived availability of social support is something that’s been repeatedly shown to buffer against negative [occurrences] on physical and mental health and generally promotes better outcomes. In particular, within the context of intellectual achievement, we know students with a trusting relationship with their teachers or mentors, for instance, are better able to take critical feedback and learn more adaptively from learning opportunities.

In these domains of achievement, we know some people tend to be more sensitive to the quality of their social bonds, and this is especially the case for minority students. For instance, if social belonging is important to intellectual achievement, which we know it is, members of historically excluded groups might suffer a disadvantage because when these groups, such as African-Americans, look at schools and workplaces in the United States, they see places in which their groups are simply not represented in the way they would expect, especially when they look at institutions where certain individuals are holding positions of authority. They perceive that their fellow peers were not able to succeed in mainstream institutions and they’re given this context that it’s undesirable for minority students to be sensitive to the potential quality of their social relationships in these settings.

This interview has been edited for length.

This is the first of a two-part interview with Omid Fotuhi on the topic of improving feelings of social belonging for non-traditional, minority students. In the second installment, Fotuhi shares his thoughts on what higher education institutions can do to help students overcome these challenges.

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