The Emerging Student Majority

Beyond a Deficit View

Administrators and faculty members desperately need a new language to characterize minority, low-income and first-generation students -- one that frees us from dependence on labels such as “disadvantaged,” argues Byron P. White.

April 19, 2016

One of the most perplexing features of the studies and reports on student success that have emerged in recent years in higher education is that many are dominated by discussion of student failure. Often, these documents included a section with a title like “Barriers to Persistence and Completion.” These narratives fixate on factors that identify students as “at-risk,” “vulnerable” or “disadvantaged.”

Chief among these factors is some variation of what I call the big three deficiencies: minority, low income, first generation. Maybe my sensitivity to them comes from the fact that I fit all three descriptions when I graduated high school.

More than ever before, colleges and universities are having to demonstrate their ability to ensure that students with big three labels achieve. Demographic trends indicate that the pool of prototypical college-ready students -- recent high school graduates from high-performing schools whose parents have had a successful college experience -- is shrinking. As the domino effect trickles through the system, all of our institutions will be competing at some level to enroll such students to fill our classes. The numbers as well as societal pressures have driven many schools to announce campaigns aimed at recruiting students of color. Public and private funders are insisting that once we get these students, we impel them to completion.

However, the deficit framework on which many of our efforts are built hardly seems an appropriate foundation for strategies aimed at success. As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined. Certainly, many of these students face challenges that require intentional and thoughtful support. Yet our overwhelming reliance on deficit-laden labels -- or, more recently, the painfully impersonal acronym URM (underrepresented minority) -- to routinely describe these students is an indication that we do not portray them predominantly as being imminently successful or exceptionally attractive to us. If that is the case, our best efforts will be impaired.

My perspective on this comes from my community organizing work and experience with practices of asset-based community development in urban neighborhoods. The approach recognizes that marginalized communities that are defined mostly by their very real problems -- poverty-stricken, crime ridden, violent, distressed -- are equally filled with talented residents and community assets, formal and informal, that are largely ignored. Research by John McKnight of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, Cormac Russell of Nurture Development and others show that such communities all over the world experience transformative change when residents see themselves as being beyond needy, are affirmed in the strengths they have to contribute and work together to solve problems on behalf of their families and their neighbors. Meanwhile, in contrast, communities where residents are seen, or see themselves, mainly as clients and recipients of services struggle to improve.

For instance, McKnight and other asset-based proponents argue that the obstacles associated with poverty are debilitating not because they extinguish one’s gifts and talents, but because they limit the opportunity for them to be fully actualized. Too often these contributions go underappreciated by systems of assistance that, while providing essential services, categorize people based mostly on their placement on a needs assessment. As McKnight states in his book The Careless Society, “Communities depend upon capacities. Systems commodify deficiencies.”

Now, apply this thinking to higher education, where the overarching culture of college and university life for all students starts with the premise that “you need us.” The counterbalance that “you also bring great value to the institution” is assumed to be in place for those considered college ready. Students whose identities upon arrival are tied almost exclusively to their deficiencies start at an extreme disadvantage.

Adopting an asset-oriented view of all students, including the big three, can be accomplished by overtly acknowledging and articulating the assets that these students possess. This does not require wishful thinking or mind tricks. It is increasingly evident that minority, low-income and first-generation students possess experiences and characteristics that make them prime candidates for what a 21st-century college student needs to be. In an increasingly diverse, urbanized world, many of these students have firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by the majority of people. Many have succeeded through challenging economic and social conditions with a measure of grit and tenacity that is beneficial in a highly competitive, fast-paced society. Often, driven by their own experiences, they bring a keen sensitivity and insight to issues of equity and justice, which are sorely needed at a time when seemingly intractable disparities within society are straining social and economic structures.

Many of these students also bring a high appreciation for familial and communal collaboration. A 2012 study by Northwestern University professor of management Nicole Stephens and her colleagues found that first-generation students, for example, were more likely to express motives of interdependence -- such as helping out family and being a role model -- than more affluent students. At a time when collective action is being lauded above individual heroism as vital to problem solving in civic or corporate arenas, such sensibilities would seem a welcome contribution to campuses fueled by the hyperindependence traditionally associated with going to college.

In order to develop the discipline to value and amplify the strengths and capacities the big three bring, however, I am convinced that higher education administrators and faculty members desperately need a new language to characterize these students that frees us from our dependence on labels such as “disadvantaged” or the dreaded URM designation.

Such a tactic is not trivial. Consider how new terminology has invigorated the efforts of those who work with some of the most marginalized individuals in our society: men and women who have served time in prison and have been released back into society. Long stigmatized as “ex-offenders” or “ex-cons” or “felons,” they are now routinely referred to as “returning citizens.” The term has been advanced by policy makers, criminal justice experts and community leaders who have come to recognize that these individuals’ productive transition back into neighborhood life is essential to community well-being and stability. The term has become so universally accepted that the city of Philadelphia in 2013 officially amended its city code to abolish the term “ex-offender” in favor of “returning citizen.”

A similar reorientation is needed in higher education. I suggest we adopt a term such as “rising scholars” to refer to big three students. It would force us to articulate our expectations for success in students who typically are characterized for their likelihood of failure. It would remind those of us who seek to assist them to recognize first their gifts, talents and contributions, rather than their deficits. Perhaps it would help us chart a surer path to success among students for whom failure is no longer an option.


Byron P. White is vice president for university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University.


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