When 52-year-old Yugoslavian immigrant Gac Filipaj completed his bachelor’s degree at Columbia University, after working there as a janitor for 19 years, the news media jumped on the story, comparing him to Matt Damon’s character in the film Good Will Hunting and employing metaphors only slightly worse than the one I used in the title of this piece. Filipaj definitely “cleaned up,” showing what determination and hard work can earn, but mostly what he did was provide a high-profile example of today’s new college student. Many Americans do not realize that the typical profile of today’s college student is not the teenaged frat boy of legend–nor is it the newly minted Ph.D. named Shaquille O’Neal. Rather, the imperatives of today’s job market and economic situation mean that college students come in all varieties.
The 2011 Almanac of Higher Education bears this out. Traditional patterns of enrollment are changing. For example, community colleges are seeing far more students in the traditional age bracket. According to Elyse Ashburn in The Chronicle of Higher Education,
“A major story line of the past five years, borne out by the report, has been the increase in traditional-age students who enrolled in community colleges. In 2006, 41.7 percent of traditional-age students enrolled at two-year colleges; in 2009, 44.5 percent did so. Between 2008 and 2009, enrollments of traditional-age, first-time students at two-year colleges increased by 8.3 percent.”
Immigrant and Minority College Student Numbers on the Rise
One of the other major trends is the increasingly higher numbers of minority students attending America’s colleges, which mirrors the recent news that, for the first time ever, the birth rate among citizens of minority groups outpaced the birth-rate of whites in the United States. For example, at the University of Texas, white students, who used to be the majority, constituted 48% of the study body in 2010. The Education Trust’s most recent report on its Access to Success Initiative (A2S), titled Replenishing Opportunity in America, presented the conclusions of its research on over 3.5 million students at two- and four-year colleges at 22 state systems from 2005-2009. The research found higher rates of enrollment and graduation among minority students. In the California State University System (CSU), for example, Access to Success initiatives helped increase the population of incoming freshmen African American, Hispanic, American Indian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students from 37% to 46% since the initiative began in the 2005-2006 academic year.
Demographic Change Means Academic Change is Necessary
However, higher enrollment does not always translate into higher graduation rates. The New York Times pointed out that the National Center for Education Statistics has found that “nationally, 52 percent of Hispanic students and 58 percent of black students are unable to earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared with 40 percent of white students.” José Cruz of The Education Trust used his presentation at the 7th annual Massachusetts Higher Education Consortium (MHEC) policy summit, “Ready or Not, Here They Come: Ensuring the Success of All College Students,” to reinforce the knowledge of educators and administrators that enrolling more numbers of minority students means that new programs and efforts must be made to address their needs to help them learn and graduate. Cruz “reminded his audience of the persistent, alarming achievement gaps experienced by underrepresented minorities and underserved low-income students in both K-12 and higher education.” He then suggested the following steps are necessary to ensure that the achievement gap between minority and low-income students is bridged, as written in the MHEC policy research summary:
- Reforming underfunded K-12 institutions in ways that un-cluster low-income students, set and maintain high performance standards, and demand high-quality instructors;
- Preserving need-based financial aid and rethinking inequitable financial aid policies that disadvantage underrepresented minorities and low-income students;
- Identifying, validating, and swiftly replicating successful K-12 schools, school districts, and post-secondary institutions; and
- Cultivating leaders and followers willing to participate in a collective movement that advances the success of all youth at all educational levels.
Other steps can be taken, as well. At Western Kentucky State University, for example, Vice President for Student Affairs Howard Bailey has discovered that the presence of more minority faculty members at all levels of education helps minority students succeed academically. In an interview with the school newspaper, Bailey argued that minority students there
“needed people of color to sit down with them on the front end of their college experience and tell them, kind of read them the riot act and tell them, ‘Now this is what you’ve bought into. Do you really understand what is expected of you? This is what your college experience is going to be. Here’s some of the pitfalls. There’s going to be warm weather, attractive young men, attractive young ladies. There’s going to be social events, and you can look up, and you’ve been here five or six weeks, and you’ve had a great time. And then, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m about to flunk already.’ “
He pointed out that because 85% of American public school teachers are white females who may not be comfortable having such frank discussions with their minority students, these students may need to hear them when they get to college in order to make a smooth transition and stay on track.
All of these suggestions should be taken seriously. If equal opportunity means anything in the United States, it should mean that minority, immigrant, and low-income students are equipped not only with equal access, but with the same tools as all other students. When this is achieved, there will hopefully be many more success stories like that of Gac Filipaj.