A vision for higher ed’s role in reversing structural racism

Amid racial unrest and a global health pandemic, higher education leaders are highlighting opportunities to undo structural racism in academia, and urging colleges and universities to increase support for Black students as they push past barriers in pursuit of equity and degree completion.

In an article published by The Atlantic, three leaders at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) assert that “colleges and universities have a special role to play in making sure America’s prosperity is accessible to all” and share the steps UMBC has taken across three decades to fulfill that promise.

Related: Schools eye University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as a model for educating diverse student bodies >

During the 1980s, Black freshmen at UMBC had a six-year graduation rate of just over 20 percent, 10 percentage points lower than UMBC’s rate for all freshmen. UMBC has since closed its Black-white graduation gap—and increased its overall graduation rate to 70 percent—but at the national level, inequities persist: around 40 percent of Black full-time freshmen at U.S. colleges and universities graduate within six years, compared to 60 percent of students overall.

Rethinking the academic and co-curricular experience

UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, Senior Adviser Peter H. Henderson, and University of Maryland School of Medicine Professor J. Kathleen Tracy write in their Atlantic piece that it has taken “a range of interventions” to close the university’s Black-white attainment gap.

UMBC prioritized a data-driven approach, proactively identifying at-risk students and connecting them with support, as well as reshaping institutional programs to help students thrive. The university redesigned so-called “weed-out courses” to support student learning instead, advanced persistence through residential learning communities, and closely examined the freshman experience.

Students now have access to “short courses on how to navigate college, writing instruction, first-year seminars, and other support programs for transfer students,” and the university’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program has been widely admired, and replicated, for its success improving learning outcomes.

The programs “provide students with a sense of belonging, agency, and efficacy, along with tools they need to be successful,” the authors write.

Removing financial barriers

The authors add that finances create make-or-break decisions for students entering and completing college. “Pell Grants have not kept pace with inflation,” they write, “much less increases in tuition and fees, as per-student state appropriations for higher education in constant dollars have declined.”

While it will take policy changes to alleviate that gap, institutions also have an opportunity to help students understand college costs, the authors say. UMBC says it is trying to minimize the amount students must work outside the classroom and finding creative ways to address financial obstacles that derail students just shy of graduation.

Changing the campus culture

Campus culture also has been a crucial area of focus. “Our campus had a challenging racial climate in the 1980s, including student protests and annual takeovers of the president’s office by the Black Student Union and its allies,” the UMBC authors describe.

UMBC has since undertaken initiatives to recruit, admit, hire, and retain diverse students and faculty, but the authors say they “know we can still improve.” They caution that simply checking a box to welcome underrepresented students and faculty is not enough. Institutions must cultivate a supportive and equitable environment, committing to address diversity and inclusion at all levels of an institution.

“To be successful, presidents, provosts, and CDOs need allies among the most powerful faculty,” UMBC administrators say. “Progress requires commitment from the academic community, including the faculty who have the power over the curriculum, how classes are designed and taught, and experiential learning—essentially the academic experience and success of students.”

Addressing obstacles before college

Other experts, meanwhile, are urging higher ed leaders to recognize their role in closing K-12 equity gaps, which can have lasting implications for Black students’ educational trajectories. According to experts interviewed by Inside Higher Ed, Black children are more likely to have “adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs,” such as losing a parent or witnessing violence or trauma, which ultimately have an impact on their mental and physical health in later years.

And while ACEs aren’t the only determinant of a child’s chance of going to college, Leila Morsy, an academic lead of teaching and learning in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University in Australia, says they do play a role.

“I think of children’s educational outcomes and students’ higher education outcomes as symptoms of the conditions in which they are born and live and learn, more than the other way around,” Morsy says. “We should as a country look to remedying the social and racial inequities as a mechanism to improve people’s access and outcomes in higher education, rather than the other way around.”

Reflecting on the historic and systemic barriers shaping Black children’s educational experience, Damien Sojoyner, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, says K-12 schools’ focus on testing and meeting certain standards have muted opportunities for Black cultural expression. Resulting sentiments of unbelonging are common threads for many students of color, especially those not born in the U.S., sometimes leading to imposter syndrome and diminished learning experiences.

“Higher education cannot immediately address these issues,” Anthony Abraham Jack, assistant professor of education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, told Inside Higher Ed. “But they can do two things: account for them in how they do admissions and prepare for those students, as well as lobby for initiatives and policies that aid in the reduction of these equity gaps.”

Those include strengthening early childhood and K-12 programs like Head Start, encouraging Black students who want to become K-12 teachers, and supporting high school educators and counselors integral to the college pipeline. On the admissions front, colleges can take a holistic approach that accounts for inequities, reduce their reliance on standardized test scores, broaden their recruitment to underserved high schools, and—crucially—“listen to their Black students.”

Related: How Georgetown is supporting teachers to strengthen the college access pipeline >

Sojoyner says he remains optimistic after seeing gradual change over the course of his career. “Now is one of the moments to really uncover and realize the potential of what universities could be doing and how to struggle for actual freedom, so that everybody can live in a way that is not utopic, but is a just society.”

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