Mentorship, Responsiveness and Encouragement – All Keys to Closing College Student Inequities

While the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has made disadvantaged student inequities more visible, it is important to remember that these predate the pandemic and will continue to exist once it subsides. Alison Richardson is the Director of Equity Initiatives at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) and is an expert on this topic. She recently completed a dissertation on the role of faculty and staff on retention and graduation of students who are low income, first generation and underrepresented students. She was kind enough to set aside some of her valuable time to share her insights on the topic and what she is doing at CSUEB to help mitigate its impact on students.

Melissa: While more low-income students and students of color are attending college, their completion rates remain low and they are a fraction of their higher-income and white student peers. What underlying factors do you think are behind this persistent gap?

Alison: There are multiple factors in why too few low-income, underrepresented students complete college within six years. From the standpoint of universities, the biggest factor is most institutions’ inability to work differently to serve a different kind of student. For the most part, higher education in the United States is still designed to serve high-income, white male students, and many administrators and faculty alike fail to communicate in a way that people from different backgrounds can understand. This can be seen even in the language that is typically used. Words like “Bursar” or “Ombudsman” are generally unfamiliar to people from lower-income backgrounds, even though in the case of the former it is something that is essential to their getting the financial aid they need. Asking students totally unfamiliar with the terminology and with the system itself is like putting someone who has never been taught to drive behind the wheel of a car and expecting them to know all the rules of the road and get to their destination.

Though conscious racism is certainly less prevalent on campuses than it used to be—especially at a highly diverse institution like CSUEB—there still may be a sense among administrators or faculty at some colleges that low-income students don’t belong there or have taken someone else’s place undeservingly. Failure to engage with these students and deliberate bias against them both play a role in inequity.

Melissa: What do you see as the key solutions to addressing the problem of education inequity?

Alison: In my research for my dissertation, I spoke to a dozen students from low-income backgrounds who all said the same general thing: they made a connection with someone—whether a faculty member, counselor or informal mentor—who saw something in them that they didn’t see themselves. Having someone who helps students navigate the process is key, but they also must be attentive and responsive to those students’ needs. The students I interviewed said the mentors or advisors who had the most positive impact were able to get back to them with answers to questions or general advice within 24 hours. The best mentors also approached students’ problems from the perspective of encouraging rather than discouraging them. For instance, a student who wanted to become a nurse required the encouragement of a mentor who would say “Great! Here’s what you need to do!” rather than “You’ll never make it as a nurse so you should change your major.” I do not think even well-meaning advisors realize how demoralizing they can be by insisting on a low bar for achievement. Encouragement and positivity make a big difference for students who are unsure of themselves and unconfident.

So, from the perspective of universities, I would say the solutions are to train faculty and counselors to be responsive to students and positive in their advice and encouragement. Most importantly, they must be legitimately empathetic and able to relate to their unique needs as low-income students, many of whom are first-generation people of color. And crucially, universities have to understand that just getting underrepresented students into college isn’t enough; remember my analogy about putting people in the driver’s seat of a car and expecting them to know how and where to drive to reach their destination. Universities must grasp the need to act not only as students’ vehicles for success but as their GPS as well, or else they’ll have great difficulty getting where they want to go.

Melissa: Can you tell me more about the specific initiatives you lead at CSUEB?

Alison: Our Student Equity and Success Programs build on the principles and findings I have already discussed. We are not just general advisors, giving students information and advice about how to navigate the campus (though that is certainly an important part of it). Our program is holistic, by which I mean it takes into consideration a student’s financial, academic, and personal situations. We aim to provide help and support across all these areas, recognizing that students from low-income backgrounds might be facing issues in their non-academic lives that may impact their studies more than students from higher-income backgrounds. Students that worry about financial aid or taking out student loans or must contribute to supporting a family will likely need more guidance and options that can support their success (adjusting their class schedule so that it provides time for work and adequate study and sleep), given that they are often the first person in their families to attend college. We also place a high premium on having an open-door policy for students, so they can come ask us for advice about anything related to their academic or personal lives and know that they won’t be judged or told that it’s not our problem. In my experience, having this open-door approach is instrumental in showing students that they have a resource at any time.

Melissa: How are underserved students at CSUEB being impacted by the ongoing Coronavirus crisis and the closure of the campus?

Alison: Many underserved students are returning to homes that do not have a quiet space where they can study. They have parents, siblings, and other relatives, often with only one computer and, sometimes, no internet access. As with most other issues, this has a disproportionate impact on low-income students. At CSUEB we are maintaining virtual, one-on-one meetings with students, so they will not lose that vital personal connection. We are also hosting online events where we offer insights on tips for taking virtual courses and ensuring that being back home does not cause students to fall behind on their studies. As with most institutions, we are still in the process of transitioning and figuring things out here. But what is important is for us not to lose sight of our overall mission, which is to help underserved students through personal connections and by helping them navigate the process. I think our staff is making great progress toward making this as seamless a process as possible.