How, and why, your city should engage with minority students

Students at UT Brownsville celebrate their Math and Science Academy
Students at UT Brownsville celebrate their Math and Science Academy - Courtesy Excelencia in Education

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Let's begin with a truth that should be self-evident: We need to focus on equity when we look at student success in college. 
It matters that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to complete a college degree. Increasingly, most of us will need a degree or certificate to get a job. By 2018, nearly two-thirds of available and replacement jobs will require some college. And with 3 million jobs unfilled despite high unemployment, the American economy needs educated talent, and more of it, to grow. 
In other words, we should focus on equity in college success not only because it is just, but because we must -- especially if we plan to rise to the ambitious goal set by President Barack Obama, who wants to see the United States become the world leader in college attainment by 2020. 
"The natural approach is to look at populations that are disproportionately underperforming," says Dr. Karl Reid, Senior Vice President of Academic Programs and Strategic Initiatives at the United Negro College Fund. "We have to dramatically ramp up the number of students of color who earn degrees."
Reid's work is focused on African-American male students, two-thirds of whom do not finish college once they start it. Their achievement rate is lower than any other racial and ethnic group in the U.S., and the gender gap is the most drastic, with a 31.5 percent post-secondary attainment rate among African-American men compared to a 68.5 percent attainment rate among African-American women, according to the U.S. Department of Education.1
"We're losing some exceptional talent," Reid says. "And we're relegating them to an existence that requires a college degree, [where] they're unable to perform and participate in a global economy." 
Latinos, too, are underachieving in college compared to their peers. Just 19 percent of Latinos ages 25 to 62 have at least a two-year college degree, compared to 43 percent of whites. They're also the fastest-growing segment of the population, and one of the youngest; by 2020, Latinos are projected to make up nearly 25 percent of the 18 to 29-year-olds in the country, up from 18 percent in 2008. Currently, Latinos comprise 22 percent of the children in the K-12 system nationwide.2
At Excelencia in Education, President Sarita Brown and her colleagues are exploring ways to increase college attainment among Latino students. When the Lumina Foundation began its national effort to increase the number of Americans with college degrees, they used Excelencia's research to understand the impact of Latino student achievement on nationwide college attainment goals. 
"They saw what we see: that the proportion of the American student body that is Latino is so significant that you must look at Latino students when you look at large-scale student success," Brown says.
Lumina, working with Excelencia and Foundation Strategy Group (FSG), is providing $11.5 million over four years to 13 remarkable community partnerships across the country. The aim is to build, implement and sustain college preparation, access and success strategies for Latino students. Along the way, the initiative will collect data, foster discussion, develop best practices, build capacity, and begin to cultivate an understanding that college-educated Latinos are an asset to the workforce, to communities, and to regions.
UNCF is also working on large-scale strategies. Plans are underway to unveil a new Black Male Initiative in late winter or early spring, informed by several small pilot programs at schools within the UNCF network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
"The big project is answering the question: How do we leverage all of the assets available at UNCF to develop on-the-ground strategies in cities to increase college readiness?" Reid says. 
Cities competing for the Talent Dividend Prize may be asking a similar question: What can we do in our city to make a difference for low-income, first-generation, and minority students? 
How to do it 
As with so many entrenched problems, a good first step is to acknowledge that it exists -- and to realize that your community is not the first to try to tackle it. 
"Make sure you're being inclusive in the work you're already doing," says Deb Santiago, Vice President for Research at Excelencia. "Recognize that you might have to be a little more targeted in outreach to Latinos in your city. They might not be part of the historical infrastructure that receives information services about college readiness and college completion."
Don't start from scratch, says Santiago. Are there are organizations in your community already working to improve success among underserved populations? Seek them out. Excelencia's Growing What Works database can help you find programs in your area and learn about tested practices that get results.
"This isn't rocket science," says Karl Reid. Prior to joining UNCF, Reid worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directed Boston-area pre-college programs and studied the success of African-American men in higher ed, specifically in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. 
Reid found it helpful to shift his thinking away from what's wrong with the educational system and toward what works: intensive academic preparation; building developmental skills like resilience, persistence, and confidence; "intrusive advising" based on early warning signs of flagging performance; and facilitated study groups that help minority students hold each other accountable to high performance. Many successful efforts also include some kind of a bridge program, where college students "reach down" to mentor younger kids, as early as fifth or sixth grade, to provide tutoring -- and to raise expectations and aspirations. 
In fact, we all need to raise our expectations, says Sarita Brown. 
"Begin with the belief that Latino families want their children to get college degrees," she says.  "If it's not happening, it's not because there isn't a desire to do it. It's important for everyone to eliminate from their thinking this notion that the Latino community has to be persuaded. What we see in every focus group, in all of our data, from all of our partners, is that Latino families recognize that education is the way for their children thrive."
The challenge is understanding this tactically: How can parents can be advocates? How do students navigate the system? How do we transmit "college knowledge" throughout the community? If a city can identify and implement practices around those tactics, "That's where the change happens," Brown says. And even the most sophisticated, high-achieving communities can get better at it.
Data -- and the dissemination of information -- is a critical component in improving graduation rates and developing stronger partnerships within the community. 
"Talent Dividend cities have to pay attention to information-sharing around the choices that students make about going to college," says Santiago. "Information about everything from financial literacy to college choice really matters in cities with large Latino populations." Strategies that work with first-generation students work with many Latino students, she adds, since so many Latino students are first-generation students. 
Reid advocates using data as part of a whole-city approach to minority student achievement, where success metrics -- including attendance, expulsions, test scores, college enrollment and more -- create a feedback loop between K-12 and higher ed, and between K-12 and community organizations such as tutoring groups and after-school programs. Programs such as the cradle-to-career Strive Network and Say Yes to Education, which has essentially "adopted" the entire city of Syracuse, provide helpful models. 
"It's almost a military approach," Reid says. "Not just one branch is involved. That's the approach that's necessary, and that's the approach we are looking at in a handful of cities. It has to include the media, social media, and sending the message about expectations, achievement, and the value of education."
"Sometimes," he adds, "you have to sell the why before you can sell the what." 

Amy Elliott Bragg is the editor of Talent Dividend Network.

1. Harper, S. R. (2012). Black male student success in higher education: A report from the National Black Male College Achievement Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

2. Santiago, Deborah and Patrick Callan (2010). Ensuring America's Future: Benchmarking Latino College Completion to Meet National Goals: 2010 to 2020. Excelencia in Education.
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