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UC Denver Voices

What students face at the 'Race' finish line

10/12/2009
 

By Philip Joseph and Janet Lopez

In higher education the status quo is a slippery slope. The United States is aging and what population growth is occurring in the younger generation is disproportionately among communities of color – a segment that historically has not experienced great success in higher education.

The challenge this dilemma represents only recently has been recognized in policymaking circles as the evidence has emerged that the United States is losing its competitive edge abroad and is facing increasing economic stress at home.

A recent report, “The Crisis of Inclusion in Higher Education: A White Paper,” outlines the seriousness of the problem in Colorado and offers recommendations for addressing it, particularly at urban institutions. The report is the product of a symposium held Feb. 12, 2009 in Denver and includes perspectives shared by university faculty and staff, education policymakers, and community organizations

Given the convergence of disturbing factors, such as the well documented disadvantages faced by minority students and those from low socio-economic families, the economic downturn, the soaring tuition rates and decreases in state spending on higher education, the report states that access is “perhaps the central question affecting the American university today.”

Population projections forecast “substantial increases in the population of American youth who historically have been the most poorly served, least economically successful and most under-prepared for college-level work,” the report says. “This, in conjunction with the retirement of the most well educated population in the United States, will create a drop in education levels of U.S. workers.”

The challenge is not limited merely to getting students through the gates of the university. Once these students arrive, they must be given the resources to succeed academically and to thrive in the next stages of their lives. Widespread student success will come only from a comprehensive plan involving all members of the university community.
 
While there are no simple solutions, we suggest redoubling efforts in six areas to address the problem. Higher education institutions should:

• Increase outreach to students, families, high schools, community colleges and community groups as an essential element of any effort toward a more inclusive academic environment;

• Invest in faculty training and incentives to improve teaching methods, raise the level of student engagement and increase the likelihood of academic success;

• Actively pursue a diverse faculty to provide role models for students and to create a more dynamic learning environment on campuses;

•  Offer robust financial aid packages that lessen the amount of student loan debt incurred by students;

• Facilitate greater access to student groups, student peers and faculty mentors to help students adapt to the academic environment, especially if they represent the first generation of their family to attend college; and

• Enable university employees to advocate effectively for inclusion as a value for society as a whole. Whenever public policies interfere with the university’s ability to educate a diverse population, the report said, “those who work within the university should feel entitled, even obligated, to make the contradiction apparent.”

The matter is urgent.

Many high schools in Denver have dropout rates of 50 percent or higher. This is in a district where enrollment is nearly 55 percent Hispanic. 

For graduates from Denver Public Schools from 2002 to 2007, 56 percent enrolled in college, but only 39 percent of Hispanic students went on to college compared to 71 percent of non-Hispanic white graduates and 63 percent of African-American graduates. The number of students who graduate from higher education institutions is smaller still.

As the state prepares to submit a Race to the Top application that focuses primarily on how the P-12 system prepares students to enter into postsecondary institutions, we must be mindful of the crucial part that the university must play in successfully recruiting and retaining these same students.

Giving students the support they need to succeed in higher education and to prepare them for life after the B.A. is what winning the race is all about. 

Philip Joseph is director of the Colorado Center for Public Humanities at the University of Colorado Denver. Janet Lopez is director of P-20 Initiatives at UCD.