Want to Increase Graduation Rates? Hire More Underrepresented Faculty

by Renée Byng Yancey, Vice President, Equal Measure

This op-ed was originally published in Diverse Issues for Higher Education

This month, college students will line up in their caps and gowns to receive that prized piece of paper that will open the doors of opportunity. It’s time we recognize who is missing from that line — and what we can do to change it.

While overall college graduation rates have been increasing, the gap between graduation rates for students from underrepresented groups and White students is actually growing. One way to close that gap: having more faculty who reflect the race and ethnicity of those students.

Think about it. How often do students from underrepresented groups sitting in lecture halls and working in labs see professors and instructors who look like them, or have similar cultural backgrounds? And how often do students from all groups — White, Black, Latino, Asian, and more — pursue interactions with faculty members who are not like them to understand unfamiliar perspectives and experiences?

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, of the 1.5 million faculty at degree-granting postsecondary institutions in 2013, the overwhelming majority were White men (45 percent of these positions) and white women (35 percent). Black men and Black women each held three percent of faculty positions, while Latino men and women each held two percent. Clearly, the makeup of faculty does not come close to reflecting the demographic makeup of the country.

We need to address this disparity for the benefit of all students. Black and Asian-American students are most likely to report the most negative assessments of their college environments because of stereotypical assumptions about them at predominantly White institutions. Research shows that clubs for underrepresented students can help them better adjust to their college experience. We’re also seeing an increase in chief diversity officer hires. These officers connect underrepresented students with the resources they need to succeed, and play a role in diversifying faculty to ensure the collective success of underrepresented students and staff.

The number of students from underrepresented groups now attending college reflects the demographic shift taking place in the country: From 1996 to 2012, college enrollment for Latino students increased by an incredible 240 percent, while enrollment for Black students increased by an impressive 72 percent. However, enrollment is only one side of the story. An equally, if not more important point to consider is the graduation rate of students. Latinos have the highest attrition rate or have the lowest college graduation rates by age 26 than any other racial or ethnic group save Native Americans.

With a rise in college enrollment comes an increase in student loan applications — loans that have to be repaid regardless of whether a student graduates or not. According to a 2015 report from the think tank Demos, Black and low-income students seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree borrow more money — and more often — than white students. The report also showed that at all colleges, nearly 40 percent of Black students with debt drop out, compared to 29 percent of White students. The number is even higher when only for-profit colleges are considered: Nearly two-thirds of Black and Latino students borrowing money at four-year schools drop out.

Dropping out drastically affects a student’s future earning potential. A College Board report found that over a 40-year working life, college graduates earn 66 percent more than their peers with only a high school diploma.

One way to improve student retention and opportunity is to increase the number of faculty of color students see in their classrooms. While faculty diversity benefits all students, it is especially beneficial for underrepresented students to see themselves and their experiences reflected in authority figures. More diverse faculty may be able to relate to a student’s needs on a more personal level and have a vested interest in seeing these students succeed.

A recent study from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics found that having just one Black teacher in elementary school could decrease the dropout risk among Black high school students by 29 percent. We need to understand how this applies to college students as well.

Seeing more faculty of color also can benefit first-generation students, who are more likely to come from underserved backgrounds and less likely to graduate. From economic to cultural issues, first-generation students have different needs as they matriculate. Faculty of color are often asked to step into mentoring roles for these students, providing them with additional career and life guidance.

At New Connections, we help underrepresented scholars advance in academia through grants and professional development. We are currently focused on supporting these scholars in sectors such as public health, health policy, architecture, engineering, and urban planning — fields with a marked lack of diversity in student body and faculty composition — so students in these disciplines can learn from faculty from underrepresented groups.

But we and groups like us alone cannot carry the water on this issue.

Colleges and universities must give a critical eye to their own hiring practices and how they support a culture and climate that is conducive for underrepresented faculty. Their decisions can have a far-reaching impact on what opportunities their students will encounter.

As colleges strive to make their incoming student body more diverse, let’s ensure they work equally hard to make their graduating class just as representative.

Renée Byng Yancey is the national program director at New Connections, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program that supports early and mid-career researchers from underrepresented groups working in academia.