Keys to the Survival of Predominantly White Institutions: Recruitment and Retention of Black and Brown Students

By Donald Brown

In a recent meeting with a young college recruitment officer, I posed the question: When and why did your institution decide that it would not recruit in some of the major urban centers in the U.S.? He was forthright in his response. He matter-of-factly said that, in the early 2000s, his institution decided not to recruit in these centers because of the high levels of violence and the poor quality of education provided to students in their local schools.

I believe this kind of thinking must cease. The future of many predominantly white institutions (PWIs) may very well depend on it.

In fact, there has been significant improvement in the high school graduation rates in minority communities over the past several years. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that the national adjusted cohort graduation rate (the percentage of public high school freshmen who graduate with a regular diploma within four years of starting 9th grade) in 2018-19 was 86%, the highest it has been since the rate was first measured in 2010-11. Asian/Pacific Islander students had the highest rate (93%), followed by white (89%), Hispanic (82%), Black (80%), and American Indian/Alaska Native (74%).

These data illuminate the fact that, contrary to public perception, students of color are closing the gap with white students in high school graduation rates.

These findings also suggest that there is an opportunity for PWIs, especially those institutions at financial risk of closure. Their doors can remain open, if they begin immediately to prioritize recruitment in overlooked communities of color. These institutions will probably find that there is an abundance of qualified, committed students who are ready and eager to enroll. The students will need adequate financial aid and, importantly, a sense that the institution is welcoming, inclusive and committed to diversity.

In my judgment, the twin sibling of recruitment is retention. Predominantly white institutions will need to not only focus on recruiting Black and Brown high school graduates, but they will need to ensure that, once enrolled, these students are provided with the resources they require to persist and to graduate from college.

Thought leader, professor and retention expert Vincent Tinto of Syracuse University opined that several factors are important to the persistence and graduation of low-income students. One is institutional commitment. “Simply put, institutions that are committed to the goal of increasing student success, especially among low-income and under-represented students, seem to achieve that end,” says Tinto. “But institutional commitment is more than just words, more than just mission statements issued in elaborate brochures; it is the willingness to invest the resources and provide the incentives and rewards needed to enhance student success. Without such commitment, programs for student success may begin, but rarely prosper over the long-term.”

Over the years, several educational associations have highlighted successful student-retention models. I was honored that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) report “Improving Minority Retention in Higher Education: A Search for Effective Institutional Practices” recognized an initiative I created at Boston College, called the “Options Through Education-Transitional Summer Program.” The aim of this program is to provide African American students with a comprehensive array of support services that lead to successful completion at Boston College. (The researchers also highlighted programs focused on the holistic needs of first-generation students of color at California State University-Fresno, the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and Purdue University.)

The authors of the ETS report identified several characteristics that are at the core of the most effective models. Among them:

  • The presence of a stated policy
  • A high level of institutional commitment
  • “Institutionalization” (i.e., retention of students of color is an integral part of the college’s mission)
  • Comprehensive services, including academic advising, tutoring and mentoring
  • An understanding that everyone on the campus can play a significant role in retaining and graduating students of color
  • Participation that doesn’t bear a stigma (To help illuminate the point that students who use support service programs have been afforded a unique opportunity to attend the institution because the institution believes in their ability to succeed, I used to refer to students who enrolled in the program as “diamonds in the rough.”)
  • Collection of data to monitor student progress: This results in meeting with students to elucidate how they’re doing in class and, if necessary, what they must do to improve their academic performance.

Contrary to those who lament the future of the nation’s colleges and universities because of the declining numbers of traditional, mostly white students, I see hope.

What institutions must do is think strategically about recruitment and retention. One way to do this is to forge relationships with community-based programs. Some notable ones include College Possible, Pathways to College, Bright Prospect and iMentor.

These groups can help students apply for colleges, secure financial aid and transition to higher-level education. And they can help save those institutions that are on shaky financial ground.

Donald Brown is the former chair of the Legacy Alumni of Color of Springfield College and the president & CEO of Brown and Associates Education and Diversity Consulting and former director of the Office of AHANA Student Programs at Boston College.



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