To Educate a Diverse Nation, Topple the Ivory Tower

Co-authored by Clif Conrad, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and Professor of Higher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Visit an American college campus today and you'll see a more diverse student body than ever before. Over the last 30 years, the number of Hispanic students has risen five-fold, Asian and Pacific Islander enrollment has tripled, black enrollment has risen 150 percent and Native American enrollment has doubled.

But the graduation rate for minority students falls far below the nationwide average. Our colleges and universities are not succeeding at educating students with diverse backgrounds. In an increasingly competitive global economy, our country cannot afford this waste of time, money and talent.

There are solutions to this problem, but they're found outside the ivory tower. Over the past three years, we visited a dozen minority-serving institutions or MSIs -- from Paul Quinn, a historically black college in Dallas, to Salish Kootenai, a tribal college in Montana, and San Diego City College. We learned a number of lessons -- all of which run counter to mainstream higher education thinking.

First and most important, these colleges acknowledge that traditionally underrepresented students face challenges that go far beyond paying tuition. These range from family obligations to fear and uncertainty about the meaning of college to "math shame" and speaking English as a second language. In response, the colleges have toppled the traditional hierarchies and responsibilities of faculty, staff, and students. Everyone is expected to understand the challenges students face, and in turn, take responsibility for their learning and progress. Faculty, staff and students themselves embrace multiple roles: mentor, counselor, navigator and teacher.

At Paul Quinn, the college motto "We Over Me" isn't just a slogan; it finds expression in the everyday lives of those at the school. Leading by example, President Michael Sorrell does everything from shoveling snow to mentoring students to visiting with their parents about the challenges they face if they are to remain in college. We were repeatedly told in our visit that students stay at Paul Quinn because it is like a family.

These institutions also are acutely aware that the traditional university setting, in which fierce competition trumps concern for collective success, can alienate underrepresented students. Without minimizing the importance of self-sufficiency, they place major emphasis on interdependence and collaboration. They teach students to learn with and from one another, inspiring them to become active participants in their own education as well as that of their peers.

At San Diego City College, an Hispanic-Serving Institution, students build self-confidence by interacting with one another in solving math problems. While a tutor initiates and steers a class session, students soon become active participants: talking with one another, writing in the margins of each other's notebooks and then on a whiteboard, and turning back to the tutor only when they hit a snag.

Through such collaborative practices, students learn to "give back" not only to their peers but also to their communities and others throughout their lives. Paul Quinn, located in a neighborhood where many lack access to fresh food, opened an organic farm several years ago. At this "We Over Me" farm, students tithe food to the community, learning about nutrition and strengthening their commitment to contribute to the lives of others.

Finally, the colleges we visited understand that many students arrive on campus uncertain about the meaning and purpose of college and how it might enhance their lives and communities. To help students make these connections, these institutions infuse the history and experiences of underrepresented groups into both the formal curriculum and outside-the-classroom experiences. They encourage students to seize ownership of their education and replenish their identities by engaging in culturally relevant learning opportunities.

Often this means restructuring the formal curriculum and ensuring that research, internships and service learning address issues of concern to students from diverse communities. At Salish Kootenai, students at the STEM Education Center not only take courses on Indian Health and Indigenous Science, they intern at the Goddard Space Center and conduct hands-on research on local issues such as mercury in the water.

Unsettling to academic tradition as it may be, every college can benefit from these three lessons: embrace blended roles and responsibilities, reject competition at the expense of collaboration, and link students' college experience with their personal lives and communities. Educating a diverse nation requires nothing less.