TOPICS > Education > Rethinking College

As student bodies get more diverse, colleges rethink services

BY Kyla Calvert  August 29, 2014 at 11:51 AM EDT
College students at graduation. Courtesy of the College of DuPage.

College students at graduation. Courtesy of the College of DuPage.

This year, for the first time, white students make up less than half the student body in the country’s public K-12 schools, down from 63 percent in 1997. That same change is coming to college campuses fast. Between 1976 and 2012, the number of Latino college students climbed from 4 percent to 15 percent, blacks grew from 10 to 15 percent, and Asians from 4 to 6 percent. In 1976, white students made up 84 percent of the college student body. Now they represent just under 60 percent. rethinkingcollege

At the same time, more students are returning to college after years in the workforce. Many come from low-income households and juggle classes along with the responsibilities of work and family.

The following is an edited interview with Deborah Santiago, co-founder and vice president for policy of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit focused on Latino success in higher education.

Why do these demographic changes matter?

Historically, the groups that are becoming the majority – Latinos, African-Americans, Asians and foreigners — have been the minority and their strengths and needs have not been integrated into the educational structure. And the opportunity, given changing demographics, is to be more inclusive of their stories, strengths and needs.

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How have you seen institutions’ understanding of these demographic changes evolve in your 10 years with Excelencia in Education?

We’ve seen increased attention by many — not all… We’ve seen institutions and school districts pay more attention in last five to seven years from a policy perspective.

That’s created a real opportunity to educate them and get them to understand the profile of who these students are. There has been a lot of ignorance about these populations — thinking that Latinos are high-school dropouts and English learners and immigrants. The reality is that the majority are U.S. born, English dominant and high-school graduates. If you are making decisions based on perceptions that are inaccurate, then you end up wasting resources, and worse, blaming the victim for any lack of success.

What are some effective programs or initiatives you see schools starting?

They’re improving their outreach strategies to reach out to the Latino community. Data shows 40 percent of Latinos who enroll in college are the first in their families to go to college. For their enrollment to grow, their recruitment strategies have to grow. Also, orientations that include parents, something that’s bilingual.

There is supplemental instruction going on to support students — these kids haven’t had kitchen table conversations about college and they may be coming from an educational community where they may not be the most prepared. They need institutional investment that’s at least equal to the students’ own investment in their education.

We’re also seeing a lot more commitment to work-study strategies and trying to keep kids on campus so they can use the institutional resources that are available on campus. The majority of these student are commuters. Campuses have a lot of services, but they’re normally only available 9 to 5. So if you’re commuting to campus early in the morning or at night, you can’t access those services, like the library or advising. What we’ve seen are more institutions putting the students first in designing their institutional services as opposed to what works best for the institution.

It goes back to what I said about intentionality matters. Students know when they’re not wanted or when they’re just a number. It makes a difference for an institution to say, “We want you here and we want you to be successful.”

As student demographics are changing, there are a lot of other changes happening in higher education, such as more online learning and a push for greater accountability from the federal government. How do you see these things interacting with demographics?

What we’re seeing in many ways in public policy in higher education today is a push to greater efficiency: How can we get the most graduates in ways that cost the least? That doesn’t always take into account the reality of these “post-traditional” students. Serving these students can cost more if they’re the first in their family to go to college, if they’re low-income and if they aren’t prepared. It costs money, it costs in financial aid, it costs in student services.

Accountability we’re still figuring out. The problem with higher education is that it is intentionally very diverse. We have two-year, four-year, public, private, online. That diversity is a strength of our higher education system in the U.S., but it’s also a challenge to figure out what are appropriate metrics. It’s hard to compare an institution that has a high concentration of Latino and “post-traditional” students, which is often an institution with low resources, with a flagship or much more selective institution. Accountability is highly appropriate, but we have to struggle as a higher education community to figure this out.

Why should someone outside the education community be paying attention to these trends?

I think that those that benefit from a well-educated citizenry transcend those that are in the education field. Employers need an educated workforce. Our very democracy is predicated on an engaged and informed citizenry. Our healthcare requires an educated community that can take care of itself and have a healthy lifestyle. This affects those beyond those who educate. One out of every two paying social security are going to be black or brown in the next 20 years. So at the very least, if someone is going to be paying your social security, you want them to be well-educated.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.