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Improving Access and Success for Underrepresented Students

Educational Leader Carol Lundberg Discusses Research Efforts and Strategies

Aug. 12, 2014

Carol Lundberg conducts research about how colleges and universities can create more equitable outcomes for the students they serve. To accomplish this, her research has focused on institutional practices that can contribute to the college success of underrepresented students.
When higher education does not enroll and grant degrees to students at rates equal to the percentages of those groups in the U.S. population, such groups are considered underrepresented, explained Lundberg, associate professor of educational leadership. Three broad groups considered underrepresented are African American, Hispanic or Latino/Latina and Native American. 
"Predominantly white colleges and universities have done a poor job of serving students from these groups. However, that can change," said Lundberg, whose research shows that underrepresented students are no different from other students in terms of the value they gain from engaging in academically challenging courses coupled with appropriate support.
"However, research shows that underrepresented groups find the college environment to be less supportive than their peers report it to be, including less access to faculty members and more encounters of negative stereotypes about their ability to succeed in college.
"A supportive campus environment isn't only about faculty, but faculty members play an important role in terms of the climates we create in our classrooms and the messages we send to students about their ability to succeed."

Why is this an important issue in higher education?

When colleges and universities serve some student groups more than others, we all lose out. Educating only a portion of our society is foolish, especially when we have the ability to make educational opportunities available to all.

What institutional practices contribute to their college success?

Through my research, I found that the strongest predictor of student learning is a supportive campus environment, followed by maintaining high academic challenge in the classroom. Using national data, I looked at five different racial/ethnic groups, and those were the top two predictors of learning for each of the groups. It's rare that five different groups would have the same top predictors.

How can institutions create a supportive environment? 

A supportive campus environment was defined in terms of students’ sense that the college supported their success both inside and outside the classroom, and the students’ sense that faculty, staff and peers were supportive. That support included faculty being available to students and creating classrooms that minimize competition and foster collaboration. The value of a supportive environment as a contribution to learning is not new, but my study highlights its similarly powerful contribution to students from five different racial/ethnic groups. When a student senses that the college supports his or her success, that student is more likely to invest deeply in the course and learn.

What else has your research shown to foster student support?

My findings indicate that support for student success benefits all students. Effective support recognizes that the playing field is not level. Studies find that students of color encounter not only lack of support, but downright negative treatment. Some examples are negative comments about their race or ethnicity; mocking of cultural artifacts, symbols and practices that they value; and being viewed as academically inferior even when they are members of honors programs. This list could go on, but my point is that in order to provide support for student success, we must also work to identify and dismantle the barriers to student learning that privilege white students at the expense of others.  

What's next in your research efforts on this issue?

I’m beginning an important study on ways that community colleges can foster the success of underrepresented students. Community colleges enroll more underrepresented students than four-year colleges do, but their success at fostering transfer needs to improve. Improving institutional effectiveness at the community college level will create more equitable outcomes at the baccalaureate-degree level. 

Tags:  Academics & Research