Most institutions of higher education were not designed around students. This is especially the case for Black students. Despite significant national interest in improving outcomes for students of color in higher education, our efforts largely assume that all communities of color will benefit from the same interventions and approaches. We rarely consider Black students and their needs separately from those of other historically marginalized communities.
A Transformation Begins
The past two years have shown that anti-Black racism in the U.S. challenges Black college students in ways that demand focused attention and response. Without intentional, systemic change efforts, we will continue to elevate status quo norms, values, and strategies.
Many institutions have begun to transform their campuses into spaces that are more welcoming and supportive of their Black student communities. But doing so requires that we acknowledge, uncover, and disrupt our institutional histories – and this is daunting work.
The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) is committed to addressing the barriers that Black students face across our institutions, and to changing the narrative surrounding Black students’ experiences and outcomes. In 2020, we launched the Black Student Success Initiative (BSSI) to support collective action across our network. This initiative brings together leaders and change agents across UIA institutions, students, Black scholars, and community advocates as part of a comprehensive, human-centered redesign process.
In year one, UIA institutions underwent a landscape assessment process to understand how they have engaged and supported Black students over time. Campuses used what they learned to develop comprehensive, ambitious plans to improve Black students’ experiences, demonstrated through measurable outcomes with collective accountability as part of our network. As a community, UIA institutions identified and shared key barriers and mitigating strategies for advancing this challenging work. Member institutions are now moving forward with the design and implementation of their initiatives.
Lessons From the BSSI
We’ve learned four key lessons through this challenging work.
- The definition of “Black student” isn’t monolithic. Campuses need to be thoughtful in aligning their own definitions with those used by the bodies to which they report (accrediting boards, national data sets). We can’t be accurate in our understanding of the Black student population if we don’t identify and agree about who they are. Black student communities represent different backgrounds that vary by region and campus context.
- We need to identify advocates and champions for Black student success initiatives at all levels of the institution – not just at the top, and not just among Black faculty and staff. Leaders must be thoughtful in their engagement of the campus community in order to avoid cultural taxation of people of color and to ensure that including Black students is truly an institutional priority and not a voluntary effort.
- Sustainable change must center and elevate the voices and narratives of Black students. We cannot just do this work “for” Black students. We must do it together.
- We can’t let declining institutional resources prevent campuses from implementing real change to support Black students. Yes, this is a real barrier; however, it can’t be an excuse. We need to build institutions’ capacity for creativity and innovation in how they use their resources to support Black students.
Developing a Framework
As we move forward with our institutions to support their ambitious efforts in this area, the UIA is committed to serving as a:
- Bridge builder, connecting campuses to resources, information, and people that will advance systems change
- Facilitator, continuing the conversation around Black student success and keeping the spotlight on long-standing issues that undermine this population’s success
- Disseminator, collecting shared learnings and making sense of insights to disperse across the field and create shared responsibility for Black student success
Until now, UIA efforts have focused broadly on students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students. By focusing on Black students, we are bringing our attention to an individual identity group for the very first time. In doing so, the UIA is developing a framework that we and others in the field can adapt to lead identity-conscious redesign efforts focused on the needs of other communities, such as Latine, indigenous, and LGBTQ student populations. The outcomes of this initiative will include both interventions and progress at individual campuses across the UIA, and a public-facing framework and playbook for implementing identity-conscious student success work across the nation.
To learn more about the Black Student Success Initiative, contact us.