OPINION: We can and must do better to help Black students enroll in college and succeed

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Over and over, we read news stories and research studies demonstrating that Black learners face huge barriers in attending and completing college and gaining a strong economic foothold.

These barriers include the cost of higher education, the disproportionate debt Black students and families take on and the discrimination and lack of belonging many Black students experience at college.

In stories detailing inequities, from post-graduation income gaps to programming that places Black students in less upwardly mobile career tracks, the news consistently demonstrates that our higher education system is not equitably serving Black learners.

Little wonder that a recent report reveals that Black public community college enrollment dropped by 26 percent, or almost 300,000 students, between 2011 and 2019 and by another 100,000 students during the pandemic, bringing Black community college enrollment levels back to where they were more than two decades ago.

If we as a society believe that higher education is still a key lever in creating more equitable outcomes for all learners, we must renew our commitment to addressing the lack of educational opportunity and economic mobility that Black students, families and communities face.

Related: The college degree gap between Black and white Americans was always bad. It’s getting worse

This requires us to abandon the failed thinking and practices that divide us and weaken our economy. Some estimates, including one from Citi, find that the racial economic divide has cost our country $16 trillion over the last two decades. 

By moving in a new direction, we can reap the benefits of what author Heather McGhee calls the “solidarity dividend,” which is achieved when people come together across race to help communities thrive. 

Dozens of organizations, including Achieving the Dream, have joined the Level UP National Panel to raise awareness of solutions and introduce policies that will reverse the trending inequity.

We are calling for action in four areas:

  • Making higher education truly accessible and affordable for Black learners and their families.
  • Creating mechanisms for shared accountability among all stakeholders for the success of Black learners in and beyond their postsecondary experiences.
  • Providing academic and social supports for Black learners inside and outside the classroom and creating college environments that foster a sense of belonging and respect.
  • Using engaging teaching practices that draw upon Black students’ lived experiences, perspectives, strengths and needs to ensure that students “own” what they learn.

To actively pursue these actions, community colleges, which serve over a third (36 percent) of all Black undergraduate students, must rethink our notions of college access. It is no longer a given that, simply because we are “in” a community and provide the most affordable postsecondary option, Black learners will see our institutions — or even going to college — as attractive and possible for them.

We need to locate staff, recruitment and faculty in schools and communities in zip codes that we have too often overlooked, and we need to make dual-enrollment more equitable. For instance, we know that students who attend community college while completing high school are more likely to graduate from both. Yet as research has shown, Black learners participate in these programs at significantly lower rates than white students due to “exclusionary mindsets, policies, and practices.” 

We must also expand College Promise programs, which make college tuition free under certain conditions, to help eliminate financial barriers. These efforts, aligned to local talent needs and linked to high-value credentials, should focus on students from poverty-impacted families and include federal Pell Grants to reduce students’ financial worries and limit their need to work low-wage jobs while in school.

If we as a society believe that higher education is still a key lever in creating more equitable outcomes for all learners, we must renew our commitment to addressing the lack of educational opportunity and economic mobility that Black students, families and communities face.

Promise programs do help: A 2020 study analyzed 33 programs that provided tuition benefits to students attending local two-year colleges. Colleges with Promise programs saw first-time enrollment of Black men and Black women increase 47 and 51 percent respectively. 

We also need to tailor our student supports for Black students.

Data shows that many Black students lack the resources to get into college and succeed, in terms of adequate academic preparation, access to technology and other essential tools. Black students are also more likely to have caregiver responsibilities and work full-time. And the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports that “an alarming 70 percent of Black students experienced food or housing insecurity or homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

All of which means that our institutions need to know who the Black learners that we serve are and ensure that they have access to customized support services, both academic and nonacademic. We must provide them with an equitable opportunity to succeed on their educational journey and in all aspects of their lives.

Increasing Black learner success will also require that we help faculty more fully understand the importance of culturally relevant, responsive and affirming teaching. Fostering students’ sense of belonging inside and outside of the classroom directly impacts how they experience the institution.

It is up to us as higher education leaders, policymakers and community leaders to chart a new path to meet the needs of Black college students.

“It’s our responsibility,” Keith Curry, president of Compton College and chair of the Level UP National Panel said recently. We must not “put the blame back on learners because the systems have been broken.”

Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. 

This story about Black students and college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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