A new survey of thousands of college students -- most of them low income, minority and first generation -- suggests that colleges and universities should emulate historically black colleges and universities’ efforts to make students feel they belong on campus.
The result, the findings suggest, could be better student mental health and improved academic outcomes.
The survey results, being released today by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, the public charter school network, show that KIPP alumni who attend HBCUs are more likely to report a “sense of belonging” and good mental health than students who attend other schools.
Alumni with higher college GPAs were also more likely to report a sense of belonging, though the researchers didn't speculate on whether a higher GPA improved a student's sense of belonging or vice versa.
KIPP surveyed about 3,000 alumni of its charter schools and found that 72 percent of those attending HBCUs reported feeling “like I belong at my school.” Among KIPP students enrolled elsewhere, 61 percent felt the same.
Much of the difference could be due to simple factors such as having close friends on campus, regularly meeting with an academic adviser or having a mentor. Among all students, 56 percent reported having a mentor; at HBCUs, 68 percent said they had a mentor.
“We absolutely need to focus on what [HBCUs] are doing well,” said Jane Martinez Dowling, head of programs at KIPP NYC. “We need to be doing more of it.”
Dowling, who previously ran the network's KIPP Through College effort, said another factor in students' sense of belonging could be that those who choose an HBCU -- particularly a private one -- know it's often more expensive to attend than a comparable state university. Students who end up at many HBCUs “are in general making more of an investment -- and their families are making more of an investment” to go there, Dowling said. That could result in a stronger commitment to the college or university.
In New York, at least, anecdotal evidence also shows that KIPP alumni who attend HBCUs have family ties to the institutions, as well as family friends who are alumni.
She said KIPP is already focusing on sending more students to HBCUs, which are more likely to offer summer bridge programs -- and where there is “a much stronger sense of identity and community” than at types of colleges.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center last year found that African-American, Hispanic and mixed-race students comprised nearly 26 percent of two- and four-year college students in the fall 2010 cohort. It found that African-American and Hispanic students graduated at lower rates than white and Asian students.
KIPP alumni are predominantly low-income students of color, the network says: 95 percent are African-American or Latino and nearly 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under federal poverty guidelines.
The network, which comprises more than 200 public charter schools nationwide and enrolls nearly 90,000 students in grades pre-K through 12, boasts 11,000 alumni enrolled in college. KIPP says its alumni graduate from four-year colleges at a higher rate than the national average, and that its college graduation rate is about four times as high as that of students from similar economic backgrounds who attend other K-12 schools.
Previous KIPP research focused on student life has been eye-opening: a January 2017 survey found that about one in four KIPP alumni are financially supporting other family members while in college. It also found that 40 percent of KIPP alumni skip meals in college to help make ends meet.
Chris Johnson, 25, a 2016 graduate of Oakwood University and an alumnus of KIPP Philadelphia Preparatory Academy, said African-American students at many colleges can be diligent and hardworking “and still not feel a sense of value and belonging” if the institution doesn’t invest in them. Oakwood, he said, was “really intentional in providing an experience in which students felt valued and accepted as soon as they arrived on campus.”
It helped that his mother is an alumna of Oakwood, an HBCU in Huntsville, Ala. “When I got to campus, I felt like there was some legacy there,” he said.
The university went a step further, he said, providing his mother with the college president’s email address in case she had questions.
Oakwood made belonging a priority from the beginning, Johnson said: it put upperclassmen, not administrators, in charge of freshman orientation, showing new students from day one that it’s possible to make it through the difficult early years.
The upperclassmen “also open themselves up to being mentors to students who are really trying to adjust to college life,” Johnson said. “When I got to Oakwood, I immediately felt that support.”