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How Colleges Can Better Support Diverse Students

Students from different ethnic backgrounds may need different kinds of support.

Co-authored with Jonathan Santo, Ph.D.

By 2045, non-White people are expected to collectively outnumber the White population in the United States—and it’s paramount that college educational achievement meet these shifting trends.

Unfortunately, the divide across ethnic groups in educational achievement continues to grow—and in fact has gotten worse in the wake of COVID-19. Latino and Black students especially have lost ground, despite some promising gains over the last decade.

A lot of research has been done to identify why some college students stay in school and others drop out. Colleges are highly motivated to narrow the achievement gap and implement strategies that may help diverse students stay in school.

Most U.S. universities’ retention strategies have been guided by a theoretical model, first proposed by researcher Vincent Tinto, that emphasizes students integrating into the culture of the college very early in their academic career. That’s why it’s very common to see schools pushing student organizations, intermural sports, and learning communities at the very beginning of the students’ first year—sometimes even during the first week of the semester. The idea is that if students can connect both academically and socially to their school, as soon as possible, they are less likely to drop out.

However, Tinto’s model is limited in its insight for diverse students because it’s likely that different factors impact college retention for students from marginalized ethnic groups. For example, ongoing family connections (rather than school connections) have actually been shown to improve academic progress for Latino students, but hinder academic progress for White students. And other factors, like financial aid challenges, can overshadow any positive connection a student feels at home or at school. In other words, it’s complicated.

To disentangle these nuances, our research has aimed to explore the factors that predict persistence in diverse student populations. More recently, we followed a group of diverse college students for six years to see if we could add additional insights.

The last two years of our study actually overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing us to observe patterns with students from different backgrounds before and during the additional challenges brought on by virtual learning. We wanted to pay specific attention to the performance of students among three groups: U.S.-minority, immigrant-origin, and U.S.-White.

To do so, we measured how integrated the students felt, both academically and socially, by the end of their first year, and if they planned on staying in school. We also tracked their actual performance (GPA, credits earned, enrolling every semester). In essence, we wanted to find out if students from diverse backgrounds felt the same need to “connect” with the university as White students, and if that connection made a difference. We ended up finding some helpful results.

Not surprisingly, the patterns between the groups were different. For example, Latino students who were nearing degree completion during the pandemic actually outperformed their peers and earned more credits during the peak COVID-19 semesters. And U.S.-minority students that anticipated earning graduate degrees out-performed their immigrant-origin and U.S.-White colleagues with the same degree aspirations, particularly if they reported “intending to persist.” Students’ academic connection to the school predicted their persistence for all of the groups, but their social connection did not.

But what we found most interesting was something that was the same between the groups. If students reported at the end of their first year that they intended to stay until graduation, they were right. In other words, the students showed remarkable self-insight and were able to anticipate their own likelihood of dropping out or sticking it out. This was true before and during COVID-19.

Figure of the effect of Intentions to Persist (ItoP) on enrollment over time. Source: Kerrie DeVries
Figure of the effect of Intentions to Persist (ItoP) on enrollment over time. Source: Kerrie DeVries

These results have important implications. First, they strongly suggest that “one size fits all” intervention strategies will not work for students from different ethnic backgrounds. Different variables impact what helps or hinders students staying in school.

Students from marginalized groups, in particular, likely need support that reaches beyond simple connections to the university. This is, and will likely continue to be, a priority to disentangle.

However, if colleges want to identify who is at the greatest risk of dropping out and where to focus their supportive efforts, there may be a better way than speculating and making assumptions based on a student’s ethnicity. Even if colleges need to implement different strategies to support students from different backgrounds’ retention, there may be a way to easily identify who is most at risk—and it could be as simple as asking students a question at the end of the semester: “Do you plan to come back?” Perhaps a simple question could aid institutions as they wrestle with this complex and important challenge.

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