When college students feel that they belong at their institution, they are more likely to persist and succeed academically—particularly students from underrepresented and historically marginalized community groups.
Higher education leaders can help create a safe campus environment for racially and ethnically diverse students with physical spaces dedicated to cultural identity and affinity groups, according to a new report from NASPA, the organization for student affairs administrators in higher education.
The report, “Advancing Racial Justice on Campus,” set out to answer why student priorities for campus change are often unmet by institutional investments and to identify the key factors that influence institutional change.
Through focus groups and surveys, researchers learned efforts such encouraging positive engagement among diverse groups, establishing multicultural centers and supporting identity-based affinity groups can increase feelings of belonging for students and promote a positive campus climate.
The report spans 18 months of research, including interviews with 65 student activists, three campus site visits, a national survey of undergraduate students and a national survey of vice presidents for student affairs and senior diversity officers.
The student survey, which took place in late summer 2022, represented 130 undergraduates, 55 percent of whom were first generation, 44 percent of whom were Pell eligible and hailing from 64 institutions (four-year private and public as well as two-year institutions). Among administrators surveyed, 176 responded, each from a unique institution.
Space and engagement opportunities: Among the top factors students believe contribute to a positive campus climate for racially minoritized students are affinity groups or cultural spaces where students can connect with peers (58 percent). This ranked at the same level as having a racially diverse student body (58 percent) and slightly above a culturally responsive curriculum (55 percent) and racially diverse leadership (55 percent).
However, only 50 percent of surveyed students perceived the creation of cultural centers as an effort where their institution is making progress.
Multicultural centers are institutionally led spaces in which students of various racial and ethnic backgrounds can interact, according to the report. Identity-specific spaces and resources, on the other hand, are specific to groups and student-led, such as a Black Student Union.
“While the creation of multicultural centers is by no means a singular method for advancing students’ sense of belonging, it can serve as a critical step toward building a campuswide support system and infrastructure for engagement opportunities,” the report says.
Students also believe institutions should invest additional funding into culturally specific student organizations. Approximately 42 percent of student survey respondents believe increasing funds for these spaces is important for advancing campus racial justice, compared to 26 percent of surveyed administrators.
The report recommends colleges and universities ensure adequate and sustained resources are available for programming and physical spaces for student engagement.
Breaking barriers to justice: Among the top perceived barriers to racial justice on college campuses, students highly ranked lack of recognition, insufficient funding and slow bureaucracy.
Over 40 percent of students believe a lack of campuswide effort to enact change and lack of acknowledgment of racial inequities from leadership are barriers to advancing racial justice efforts. A quarter of students believe a lack of institutional commitment and follow-through on changes to student concerns hinders racial justice, as well.
Three in 10 students say lack of funding for student organizations is a barrier to advancing racial justice efforts, too.
Administrators should establish an “institutionwide understanding of the breadth and depth of inequities on campus and ensuring that approaches do not treat any one student group as a monolith,” according to the report. Promoting transparency in the process can also aid student perception and trust.
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