Guiding Today’s Students with Equity in Mind

Successfully navigating the college experience is not easy, particularly for today’s students.  Knowing where and from whom to get help can mean the difference between success or failure for students of color and those with low incomes who are opportunity youth, adults, parents, immigrants, first-generation college attendees, or justice-impacted individuals. Students find that pursuing a postsecondary credential can be more challenging than it needs to be without the proper guidance on financial aid, academic supports, and course requirements for majors, along with access to child care services, mental health services, and other campus and community resources. As Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), it must incentivize innovative approaches that create seamless, “equity-minded” pathways to success for today’s postsecondary students.

While close to 37 percent of college students are 25 and older, a quarter are parents, and 64 percent work while in school, most institutions still cater to the traditional 18- to 22-year-old student entering college for the first time. What’s more, institutions that enroll large concentrations of students with low incomes and students of color, including community colleges, are under-resourced, underfunded, and lack the capacity to provide every student with the personalized academic advising, counseling, and robust supports that help them succeed in college and beyond.

Counselors, faculty, and academic coaches who provide academic advising and counseling services on college campuses can foster healthy campus climates by helping students of color and immigrants feel a sense of belonging and get the high-quality education they deserve. Too often, students are left on their own to figure things out such as which courses to take, who to speak with in the financial aid office, where to access tutoring services, and how to connect to student organizations and other campus resources. As a result, many students with low incomes fall through the cracks, retake courses they have failed or withdrawn from, take longer to graduate, or leave school altogether.

At the small liberal arts institution where I earned my bachelor’s degree, the academic deans provided personalized advising and knew us by name. They served as academic advisors, mentors, and guidance counselors when we were struggling in a course, having difficulty adjusting to campus life, or couldn’t afford college costs. My long-time mentor, who continues to be a friend to this day, was intentional about ensuring that all students—particularly students of color, students with low incomes, and first-generation students—succeeded. She helped me select a major, encouraged me to strengthen my relationships with faculty and participate in social justice organizations led by students of color, connected me to job opportunities, and made me feel cared for when I missed home. All students should experience this type of personalized advising, guidance, and mentoring in college.

To promote student success, states and higher education systems have begun scaling up innovative approaches to increase degree completion. Two promising holistic models for community colleges students include the Accelerated Study in Associates Program (ASAP) at the City University of New York (CUNY) and the Guided Pathways approach. Key components of these comprehensive models include structured pathways, personalized academic advising and counseling services, individualized academic plans, integrated academic and non-academic supports for educationally underprepared students, mechanisms to monitor student progress, and career exploration and/or services. In addition, the ASAP model also provides comprehensive financial supports, tutoring, tuition and mandatory fee waivers, metro cards, and financial assistance for textbooks.

However, missing from these promising approaches is an explicit focus on faculty and staff diversity. As Estela Mara Bensimon at University of Southern California points out, “data centric approaches that focus on structures, not people, to achieve more equitable outcomes” are not enough. With the nation’s college campuses enrolling greater numbers of historically underrepresented students and students with low incomes, innovative student success models must respond to these changing demographics and fully embrace the intersectionality of today’s students. Centering equity means hiring faculty, advisors, counselors, administrators, and peer mentors of color who can provide culturally responsive guidance and support, while also facilitating clear, guided pathways to postsecondary credentials, jobs paying family sustaining wages, or transfers to four-year institutions. Together, these strategies can help the increasing number of students of color and immigrants enrolling in college to move along pathways out of poverty.

As Congress works to reauthorize HEA, it must invest in holistic student success models that incorporate a strong anti-poverty, racial equity focus. These models must couple clear and guided pathways with comprehensive academic and financial supports. They must also connect students to public benefits, mental health services, cultural and community centers, and other campus and community resources that allow them to thrive in school and beyond.