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Ethnicity Race and Culture

Racial And Ethnic Minority Students In Higher Education

Since the 1960s, profound changes have occurred in minority-student patterns of college attendance and degree attainment in the United States. This change has led to a growing number of racial and ethnic minority students making up a considerable amount of the student population on American college campuses. In 1997 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that African-American students, Hispanic students, Asian or Pacific Islander students, and Native American/Native Alaskan students constituted approximately 27 percent of the total college enrollment at degree-granting institutions. African-American students, Hispanic students, Asian or Pacific Islander students, and Native American /Native Alaskan students constituted 11 percent, 9 percent, 6 percent, and 1 percent, respectively, of all college students attending two-year and four-year institutions.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of racial and ethnic minority students who were awarded degrees increased dramatically between the years of 1976 and 1998. Specifically, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to racial and ethnic minority students increased as follows: African Americans, 58,636 to 98,132; Native American/Native Alaskan students, 3,326 to 7,894; Asian or Pacific Islander students, 13,793 to 71,592; and Hispanic Americans, 18,743 to 65,937. In 1997, 19.4 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded to racial and ethnic minority students. In 1998, 20.5 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded to racial and ethnic minority students.

Due to the growth in racial and ethnic minority participation in higher education, institutions of higher learning are being asked to provide optimal learning environments, equitable admission standards, and a welcoming environment for students representing a variety of multicultural and ethnic backgrounds. To that end, colleges and universities are confronted with many complex issues, such as addressing the diverse academic and social needs of racial and ethnic minority students in higher education, improving the admission process to account for past legally sanctioned discrimination, helping minority students cope with issues they may face on campus, and offering suitable programs and instituting appropriate policies to help racial and ethnic minority students make successful transitions to college from high school.

The Admissions Process for Racial and Ethnic Minority Students

To be sure, the admissions process for racial and ethnic minority students is similar to the admissions process for all students and includes such phases as making the initial decision to attend college, selecting the type of college to attend, and completing the necessary applications and admissions test required by the college or university. However, due to past racial discrimination and previous legal barriers, colleges and universities have had to consider innovative ways of trying to level the playing field in order to increase the number of racial and ethnic minority students in higher education–and to diversify the U.S. workforce to make it more representative of American society. Accordingly, colleges and universities have instituted two types of programs to aid in the enrollment of racial and ethnic minority students: enrollment programs and transition programs.

Enrollment programs are based on legislative mandates or statues (e.g., Civil Rights Act of 1964, Higher Education Act of 1965). Enrollment programs are primarily instituted to ensure that a percentage of college or university incoming enrollments are members of a racial or ethnic minority group. An example of an enrollment program is the education component of the One Florida Initiative, which mandates that 20 percent of each high school senior class in Florida will receive guaranteed admission to any of the state-supported colleges or universities in Florida. This enrollment program makes it possible to enroll racial and ethnic minority students from low-performing high schools, as well as students that may not otherwise gain admission to college.

Transition programs are defined as programs and related services designed to assist students who may not gain admittance to a college or university through traditional channels. The College Transition Program at Virginia Commonwealth University is an example of a summer transition program designed for high school students who have low scores on admission tests and low high school grade point averages. Transition programs, which enroll a large number of racial and ethnic minority students, also offer cultural enrichment activities that promote college readiness and social integration on campus. Though transition programs vary in type and length, most of them offer a study skills component and courses in mathematics, reading, and/or English composition, which gives students a jump-start on earning college credit. Students who complete a transition program at a particular university are usually guaranteed admission into that university. As such, transition programs also serve to increase the enrollment of racial and ethnic minority students by offering preparatory college instruction to students who may not otherwise be admitted to college.

Issues Faced by Racial and Ethnic Minority Students on Campus

Prior to 1973, the overwhelming majority of African-American college students were enrolled in historically black colleges and universities. In the early twenty-first century, however, predominantly white institutions grant the majority of baccalaureate degrees awarded to African Americans (and other racial and ethnic minority students). This dramatic shift in postsecondary education patterns among minority students naturally leads to questions about their educational experiences and outcomes.

Racial and ethnic minority students face a considerable number of problems once they arrive on campus. Research evidence suggests that racial and ethnic minority students are more likely to experience problems of alienation, marginalization, and loneliness than white students are. Additional evidence suggests that these and other challenges on campus may have either a direct or indirect impact on their academic performance and social development. These students continue to be severely disadvantaged, relative to white students, in terms of persistence rates, academic achievement levels, enrollment in advanced degree programs, and overall psychological adjustments. Some other problems include monocultural curricula, professors' expectations and attitudes, cultural conflicts, institutional racism, lack of support services, isolation, and problems involving socialization and motivation. While college students of all races face many of these challenges, minority students face them in a compounded manner, resulting in higher dropout rates.

Programs and Services for Racial and Ethnic Minority Students on Campus

Many services exist on college campuses to help facilitate a smooth transition for racial and ethnic minority students on campus. These services can be divided into two groups: campus-based programs and federally funded programs.

Campus-based programs. Inequality in higher educational attainment between different racial and ethnic groups continues to be a critical problem. Accordingly, many institutions have developed programs and implemented policies to address the academic and social challenges that many minority students encounter. Though it is the case that minority students are less likely to persist in college than white students are, the persistence gap can be traced to differences in legal discrimination and in the quality of secondary education of both groups. As a group, minority students are more likely to come from poorer backgrounds and have experienced inferior education than their white counterparts. This is not to suggest that all racial and ethnic minority students are disadvantaged, or that all disadvantaged students are members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Some racial and ethnic minority groups (e.g., Asian Americans) have higher rates of educational success than do groups commonly classified as belonging to the ethnic and racial majority. Thus, it is sometimes necessary for institutions to develop programs targeted to the needs of distinct groups of students.

Early contact and transition programs are important not only because they help cement personal affiliations that tie students into the fabric of student culture, but also because they enable the students to acquire useful information about the informal character of institutional life. Thus, to ensure successful programs, it is critical that institutions integrate programs and services within the mainstream of the institution's academic, social, and administrative life. One important component to successful retention programs for racial and ethnic minority students is the establishment of specialized advising and counseling services. Several institutions have established advising programs and designated offices to which racial and ethnic minority students go for many different services. An example of such a program is the New Vision Program at the University of New Orleans. This retention program focuses on academically at-risk students and students who have not met the university's academic standards and subsequently left the institution. To increase graduation and retention rates, these students are allowed to re-enroll at the University of New Orleans and participate in special academic development programs that offer advising sessions, orientations, and instructional assistance.

Having counselors and advisers of like ethnicity is not a requirement of these programs; however, experience has shown that racial and ethnic minority students are inclined to utilize these services when people of color are present. To the degree that racial and ethnic minority students represent a distinct minority on campus, they also face distinct problems in seeking to become integrated into the life of what may appear to be a foreign and hostile college community. The use of support programs and mentor programs has proven to be quite effective in increasing student retention. In many cases, these programs are designed to provide racial and ethnic minority students with faculty mentors or advisers who can provide useful information and advice. In other instances, faculty, and sometimes upper-class students, of similar ethnicity are asked to guide newly arrived racial and ethnic minority students through the institution, or at least through the first year of college. For example, ALANA–which is an acronym for Asian, Latin, African, and Native American–is a mentoring program developed at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, Michigan. This multifaceted support program focuses on providing academic and social support to freshman students of color through the use of peer mentors.

Many of the challenges that racial and ethnic minority students face on a predominantly white campus reflect the behaviors and attitudes that the students, faculty, and staff have about them. For that reason, an increasing number of institutions have instituted programs designed to educate the broader community on issues of racism and the diversity of cultural traditions that mark American life. Some institutions have even established programs to broaden the repertoire of teaching skills faculty use in the education of diverse student bodies. For example, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan offers consulting services, seminars, and workshops to faculty members who seek to learn more about how to integrate multiculturalism in the college classroom and how to develop a welcoming and inclusive learning environment. Realizing the many possible categories of institutional types, there is much to be gained from understanding how similar types of institutions have successfully addressed the issue of retention. However, it falls upon the individual institution to assess for itself the most effective approach. The beginning point of any institutional policy consists of an assessment of institutional mission and institutional priorities, as well as an assessment of racial and ethnic minority students' experiences on campus.

Federally funded programs. There are many types of proactive intervention strategies for racial and ethnic minority students. Some are long-term; others focus on the first-year experience. Many of these programs seek to encourage capable students to pursue postsecondary degrees. One such initiative is the federally supported Upward Bound program, established in 1965. Upward Bound was designed to help disadvantaged students enroll in and graduate from postsecondary institutions. A product of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Upward Bound targets youth between thirteen and nineteen years of age who have experienced low academic success. High school students from low-income families whose parents have not earned a bachelor's degree and military veterans with only a high school diploma are eligible to participate. The program provides fundamental support, such as help with the college admissions process and assistance in preparing for college entrance examinations. It engages students in an extensive, multiyear program designed to provide academic, counseling, and tutoring services, along with a cultural enrichment component–all of which enhance their regular school program prior to entering college.

Most Upward Bound programs also provide participants with college experience through a five-to eight-week, full-time residential summer program at a postsecondary institution. The summer experience is reinforced with weekly tutorial and mentoring services during the school year. Upward Bound, along with four other federal initiatives that are collectively called the TRIO programs, receive funding under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965. Upward Bound currently supports more than 560 projects serving approximately 41,000 students nationwide. The other TRIO initiatives are Talent Search, the Student Support Services program, Educational Opportunity Centers, and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement program. These programs have much to offer institutions of higher education that seek to improve the educational outcomes of first-generation college students, racial and ethnic minority students, and low-income students.

Taken as a whole, the demographic in institutions of higher education has been changing and becoming increasingly more diverse. There is still a great need for innovative programming and policies to provide realistic guidance and counseling to assist minority students in dealing with academic, social, and economic challenges in college. Minority students come from different backgrounds with different orientations, ideologies, and perspectives–and with different perceptions of success and failure. When institutions properly recognize these differences and deal with them constructively, then they will be better able to address the problems faced by racial and ethnic minority students.


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