It is time to disrupt the cycle

Why predominantly white institutions need to revamp their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to strengthen pathways to and through college for Black students.

By Christopher Wilson, LEDA Policy Corps member and student at the University of Richmond

When people ask me why I chose to attend the University of Richmond — a highly-selective, private university that is predominantly white — I tell them it was because of how affordable and accessible the institution is for me, a first-generation, low-income (FGLI) Black student. For example, Richmond’s Student Emergency Fund provides eligible students with up to $250 within a single academic year to cover personal emergencies or other unforeseen financial emergencies that may impact their ability to thrive in their studies. Also, the Richmond Guarantee ensures that every undergraduate student is eligible to receive a fellowship of up to $4,000 for an unpaid or underpaid summer internship or faculty-mentored research project before they graduate. In addition, the University of Richmond commits to fostering a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community that refines students’ education by making Richmond “a welcoming place for people from all backgrounds, identities, viewpoints, and experiences,” and by “identifying inequities in the experiences and outcomes of students, faculty, and staff in order to address them systematically and ensure all members of our community can fully participate in the life of the institution.”

Moreover, Richmond could financially support my direct costs, such as tuition and housing, on top of my indirect costs better than my in-state colleges in Tennessee. Even with a Pell Grant, university and state-specific scholarships, and other community-based scholarships I had earned, my financial aid package from most of my in-state colleges involved me taking out a sizable student loan for my freshman year. This was not an option for me. I saw how student loan debt affected my family financially and prevented my family members from finishing their collegiate education. I refused to fall victim to another generational cycle that missed the mark for upward socioeconomic mobility; I was determined to be the cycle breaker for my family. So, in August 2019, I said a final farewell to my family, packed my bags, and traveled roughly 12 hours northeast to the University of Richmond. I was confident that I could hopefully be the first in my family to attend and finish college where, upon graduation, I could graduate debt-free and possess the knowledge, network, and credentials to be the cycle breaker for my family, especially for my younger sisters.

I’m now a sophomore at Richmond, studying Leadership Studies and Business Administration. I diligently work to the highest degree in all my classes. I actively participate in several extracurricular activities and I eagerly network with various faculty and staff to improve my academic and professional potential. Overall, I am sincerely appreciative of the opportunities, experiences, and support resources I have been able to take advantage of throughout my time at Richmond thus far.

Even though I have accepted the onus of responsibility to do all I can to enhance my college experience, I still feel as though students like me — Black students — fall tremendously short of feeling as though we belong on campus. No matter where I walk on campus, I feel inundating waves of anxiety, estrangement, and personal disconnect. For instance, I recall several moments from my freshman year in which I dreaded going to the dining hall. After carrying my tray full of food into the boisterous dining room, I would start searching for a place to sit. While strolling past tables, a panoply of questions would rise to the surface of my mind: “Where should I sit so that I don’t make these white people uncomfortable?” “Are there any Black people I can sit with or next to?” “Should I smile and introduce myself to other people?” “Should I just keep my head low to avoid embarrassing myself and sit alone?” Unfortunately, I found myself sitting alone most times in the dining room and I am no longer astounded when I realize that I am the only Black student, or one of two Black students, in the classroom.

If Black students are doing all they can in spite of systems of oppression and inequality to improve their college experience, then PWIs (predominately-white institutions) must be proactive in taking on more responsibility and ownership to ensure that Black students on their campus feel as though they belong. The emotional labor I have described is not specific to my experiences; most Black students who enter higher education feel the burden of emotional labor when attending highly selective, private, predominantly-white institutions, mainly because of affordability. In 2020, out of the 3,147 undergraduates enrolled at Richmond, only 6 percent of students identify as Black or African American, while 61 percent of students identify as white. In other words, there are roughly 188 Black undergraduate students in comparison to the campus majority of approximately 1,919 white undergraduate students. Frankly, the University of Richmond should know that this is not how you create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community that’s welcoming to Black students, who you want to “fully participate in the life of the institution.” As seen by the data, colleges and universities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) strategy and objectives represent Black students nominally. Yet, in reality, it is striking to see how institutions, such as the University of Richmond, have been lacking a higher representation of Black students for decades.

I acknowledge that some critics might argue that I could have chosen to attend a more diverse institution or an HBCU, thus, avoiding the emotional labor and other pressures that weigh on me as an FGLI Black student at a PWI. However, I was hyper-aware that Black students are more likely to take out loans when entering higher education and are more likely to default on these loans. Black students’ likelihood of accepting loans to pay for their undergraduate education is higher at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) since these institutions have traditionally been underfunded and under-resourced. The Wall Street Journal reports that HBCU graduates in 2017 had a median federal-debt load of roughly $29,000 and are 70 to 75 percent more likely to take out federal student loans than at other four-year colleges and universities. Similarly, the Center for American Progress also highlighted that Black students who entered college in the 2011–2012 academic year and attended public, four-year institutions had a 27 percent default rate on their student loans, which is nearly double the default rate of Hispanic or Latino students and roughly triple the default rate of white students under the same conditions.

A dual dilemma needs to be solved by policymakers. On the one hand, institutions, such as PWIs, may have funding and resources like those that I benefit from, but few Black students are at these institutions. On the other hand, institutions, such as HBCUs, may be more diverse, yet they are chronically underfunded and under-resourced. While policymakers determine how best to address both issues, here are some actions that PWIs can take to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by strengthening pathways to and through college for Black students.

  1. PWIs need higher representation and diversity of Black students on their campuses if they want to reduce barriers that prevent Black students from being an integral part of the campus community. While increasing diversity won’t solve all problems, more Black students at Richmond would lessen the feeling of tokenization Black students, like myself, feel when the university’s marketing campaigns use our images to portray the university’s Black student demographic to prospective Black students and families as populous when in actuality, the Black student population on campus is not. More representation of Black students at PWIs will positively affect these institutions in the dimensions of diversity and equity and the dimensions of inclusion and belonging, which Black college students at PWIs struggle to attain. PWIs must be held accountable for establishing better inclusion and belonging practices, policies, and initiatives for Black students, and all students of color for that matter.
  2. Institutions need to hire more Black professors and staff. Black students would then have more opportunities to connect with campus faculty and staff, who wouldn’t cause Black students to undergo additional emotional labor of educating others about their lived experiences. In response, Black professors and staff should be compensated for their impactful work and have access to more funding and resources that directly and indirectly support Black students’ needs. At the onset of the fall 2020 semester, Richmond’s Office of Multicultural Affairs introduced a faculty and staff of color mentorship program for students of color. Given that I am a Black student, I was paired with a Black faculty member, who regularly made himself available to assist me in exploring my co- and extra-curricular interests. But more than this, he offered a safe space where my background was understood. I could be vulnerable when talking about sensitive topics, such as the difficulties I have faced — and continue to face — as a Black student at Richmond, without fear of having my experiences being invalidated.
  3. Although I think my situation would improve if there were more Black students on campus, Black students like myself, professors, and staff are not spokespeople for every Black person in the United States. After all, there is robust diversity within the Black identity in and of itself. Increasing diversity should go hand-in-hand with intentional inclusion practices. For example, PWIs should draft a set of purposeful DEI requirements that every student should fulfill before graduation to enhance the campus community’s intercultural communication and understanding. Also, faculty and staff should be held accountable for meeting similar DEI requirements. These requirements could include civically engaging with nonprofits that are experts on the intersections of DEI. Likewise, PWIs should brainstorm and implement proactive and reactive policies for students who commit acts of racism, discrimination, and assault. Lastly, PWIs should frequently affirm their support for students of color, especially when the lives of their students of color may be affected by current events.

Even though our current higher education system works against students from disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds, my earnest hope is that policymakers, institutions, and other stakeholders will incorporate these action items so that students of color, particularly Black students, will thrive no matter where they decide to attend college.

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The Today’s Students Coalition advocates for postsecondary policies that support the success of today’s students.

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Today's Students Coalition

Today's Students Coalition

The Today’s Students Coalition advocates for postsecondary policies that support the success of today’s students. #ActforTodaysStudents

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