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Universities strive for diverse, inclusive learning environments

by Mary Jordan | July 28, 2019 at 8:17 a.m. | Updated July 28, 2019 at 3:17 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER Tarah Thomas of Siloam Springs graduated from John Brown and works as the college's communications specialist. Thomas said the support JBU gave her was valuable when it came to feeling included on campus as a student. "I was able to be in a group of five women just to really talk about how we were doing on campus, what was it like to sort of grow in our faith,."

The University of Arkansas struggles to recruit, retain and graduate black students from around the state.

About 4% of the university's students last year were black. The state's black population is 15%.

Getting the diploma

Black students’ 46% six-year completion rate was the lowest among student who started in four-year public institutions nationwide. The completion rate of Hispanic students was 55%. More than two-thirds of non-Hispanic white and Asian students completed a degree at 67% and 72%, respectively. Nationally, 62.4% of all students finished a degree or certificate within six years.

Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

John Brown University’s Demographics for Fall 2018

Fall Enrollment: 2,474

• Male: 42%

• Female: 58%

• International Students: 7.5%

Source: John Brown University

University of Arkansas Demographics for Fall 2018

Fall Enrollment: 27,778 students

• Male: 47.1%

• Female: 52.9%

• Hispanic and Any Race: 8.3%

• American Indian: 0.9%

• Asian: 2.4%

• Black: 4.4%

• Foreign (International): 5.2%

• Native Hawaiian: 0.1%

• White: 74.2%

• Two or More Races: 3.8%

• Not Available: 0.7%

Source: Office of Institutional Research and Assessment’s Fall 2018 Enrollment Report

The school hired two recruiters to work with schools in Arkansas' Delta to funnel students to Fayetteville, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz said. He called the move a focused effort.

"It's more than being a cheerleader for the issue," he said.

This is just one step area colleges and universities are taking to increase enrollment and graduation rates for racial and ethnic minorities.

"In Northwest Arkansas, there's definitely a synergy of folks that are committed to really making this happen," said Yvette Murphy-Erby, diversity and inclusion vice chancellor with the Fayetteville campus. "It goes way beyond race, but race is kind of what I refer to as the common denominator."

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports college completion rates vary widely among racial and ethic groups, with black and Hispanic students graduating at much lower rates than non-Hispanic white and Asian students.

Additionally, more students in racial and ethnic minorities may now be able to afford a higher education because of legislation passed this year.

The recruiting trail

Connecting with high school students statewide who don't traditionally attend college can help them see college as an option for their future, said Murphy-Erby.

UA introduced the residential Arkansas Soul program for diverse high school students June 16-30 to help teens learn more about creating media and to see attending school in Northwest Arkansas as an option, said Niketa Reed, a School of Journalism and Strategic Media clinical assistant professor.

"It was a learning opportunity for the students to know diversity isn't just for people of color, it's for everybody," she said.

Twelve students ages 15-17 from communities throughout the state participated in the program, through which they learned the basics of print, video and photojournalism, she said. The students then took their new found knowledge into Arkansas communities to tell the stories of the people and cities they visited.

The teens covered communities as varied as Rogers and Little Rock, Reed said, giving the students a greater understanding of the diversity within other cities as well.

"You can learn from people who don't look like you, but there's also an opportunity for people of diverse backgrounds to share their experiences, to show how they want to be represented," she said.

The program will be offered at least once annually in the future, Reed said, noting it will take time for it to affect UA longterm.

"I went in knowing it's going to take some time on the recruitment effort, because a lot of the stigma and a lot of the barriers to access education are still there," she said. "I'm not worried about that. I think I have actually planted some seeds for that effort."

The university's Delta recruiter program, which started in 2015, is another way the school is reaching out to students. One part is the Accelerate Student Achievement Program that targets first-generation and low-income students from 26 counties in eastern Arkansas, said Jessica Williams, the university's senior assistant director for admissions in eastern Arkansas.

"Research tells us that most students attend college within 100 miles of their home, so we have to make sure that students in the Delta understand the potential value of a degree from the University of Arkansas and receive support in their transition should they decide to attend the U of A," Williams said.

How far the university is from a student's hometown is one of three main factors Steinmetz said leads to dropouts. The others are grade-point-average and finances.

"You can't graduate a student you don't retain," Steinmetz said.

From the delta

Kenny Reed, 19, of Osceola heard one of Williams' recruiting presentations. He called it the first convincing argument about him attending the university. The second-year student is a biology major.

"Then they brought us here on a two-day incentive trip, and I fell in love with the place," he said. "I knew I definitely wanted and needed to go here, but the question was how to get here financially."

Williams and others helped him string together a series of small scholarships, but contributions from people in his home town proved vital, he said.

"People gave money out of their pockets," he said. He was one of five students who came to the university from Osceola his first year.

"We arrived on a campus of 20,000 people, all coming from a town that maybe has 6,000 people in it," he said.

Reed didn't have a career path he wanted to follow and may change his major yet, but the opportunity to be the first in his family to get a university education will certainly be life-changing, he predicted.

"What this will do for myself and my future family is the most important thing in the world to me," he said.

There 's no discrimination at the school, either intentional or by neglect, Reed said.

"There aren't many of us," he said of black students, "but I can sit anywhere and not be stared at."

Extra help

Reed will be a mentor soon -- assigned to a newcomer from the same background. It was the same kind of follow-up and support he received after he arrived.

"When we first came, the program had a five-week summer workshop that slowly let us acclimate ourselves," he said. That was extremely helpful in getting him grounded before classes began.

UA's black students had the lowest six-year graduation rate at 50% in 2018 and a first-year retention rate of 76%, according to the university's Retention and Graduation Summary by the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. American Indian and Native Alaskan students had the lowest first-year retention rates at 72.5%.

A retention project the university started in December took 300 students on academic probation, typically with a 2.0 grade-point-average, and provided them individualized mentoring and smaller classes, Steinmetz said. He said the program is in the early stages, but he is hopeful it will be successful.

The U.S. Department of Education reports many racial and ethnic minority students struggling at college come from low-income families and are unprepared both financially and academically. Many of those students come from urban and sparsely populated rural areas where schools are low-performing, according to the department.

The long-term goal is to funnel students to the university from all Arkansas high schools by developing relationships with the schools and helping to remove barriers that may keep some students from attending college, Williams said.

Northwest Arkansas Community College works with area K-12 counselors and principals to better understand their concerns and the trends they're seeing in their students, said Todd Kitchen, the community college's student services vice president.

The college's Learning, Improvement, Fun and Empowerment program is its most successful diversity program, Kitchen said. The program began in 2011 and was designed to increase the number of first-generation Hispanic college students, he said.

"That population was very nervous, very reluctant to pursue higher education" because of a lack of connection from high school to college, he said.

The college sent student mentors into area schools to help the high-schoolers understand college was an achievable goal for them.

"We sent college freshmen, brown and white, young and old, into high schools to talk to students about coming to college," he said, explaining that 80 high school students participated in the program the first year.

The program had 224 high school students in 2018.

Diverse legislation

The responsibility for ensuring diverse and inclusive campuses hasn't been left to universities and colleges alone, as two pieces of legislation passed this year are helping to make higher education more accessible.

The Legislature in April approved a bill to allow colleges and universities to charge in-state tuition and fees to certain foreign-born residents of Arkansas. The law took effect July 1.

Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, sponsored HB 1684, now Act 844, which allows a state-supported, higher-education institution to classify a student as in-state for the purpose of tuition and fees applicable to all programs of study if the student meets one of three requirements.

To qualify, a student must verify he's a resident who's legally present in Arkansas and has emigrated from the Republic of the Marshall Islands; has an approved exemption from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that won't expire or have to be renewed; or the student personally holds or is the child of a person who holds a federal work permit.

The Legislature also approved HB 1552, now Act 837, sponsored by Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale. The law allows the State Board of Nursing to license DACA recipients as Arkansas nurses, Godfrey said in an email.

"Many communities throughout our state are experiencing a nursing shortage, and there are DACA nursing students who are ready to go to work," she said. The would-be nurses "bring with them resilience, dedication and, in many cases, bilingualism and biculturalism, which will serve our communities well," she said.

Every student counts

John Brown University, a private, Christian school, sees assuring diversity and inclusion in its student population as a key aspect of its mission, said Marquita Smith, JBU's diversity relations coordinator .

"I think the Kingdom of God reflects all diversity," she said. "If we're going to be a Christian institution, then we have to understand and get diversity, equity and inclusion."

History has at times worked against that intention, she said, noting the Siloam Springs school is located in a community that was once considered to be a "sundown town" where black people weren't welcome at night.

Tarah Thomas of Siloam Springs is black and graduated from JBU in 2016. She now works as the college's communications specialist. Thomas said the support JBU gave her was valuable when it came to feeling included on campus as a student.

"I was able to be in a group of five women just to really talk about how we were doing on campus, what was it like to sort of grow in our faith," she said of the support groups the school offered. "Having a community and being a community that was open was immensely valuable."

Thomas is planning on serving on the school's Diversity Committee and said it's exciting to be at the beginning of JBU's efforts toward diversity and inclusion.

"It's really nice just to see how the institution can grow," she said. "There's so much more that can be done to make it more inclusive."

Needed conversation

Ronlisha Nichols, who is black, moved to Northwest Arkansas from Fort Smith for the economic opportunities here. A student at Northwest Arkansas Community College, she said a major obstacle to inclusion is an unwillingness to talk to each other.

"A real conversation needs to be had no matter how uncomfortable it is," she said.

She said the current political climate has restrained conversations about inclusion-related topics. Inclusion is getting better, said Nichols, who has lived in the region for five years.

"I've lived in other places where I've been stopped while driving, or I've been in line and had people go to the front when I'm still waiting," Nichols said.

Here, being with friends and seated near the back of a restaurant while there are plenty of better tables up front still happens, she said.

Kitchen said it's important every student at NWACC feels supported, regardless of his background, values, belief system or economic situation.

He said the university has established programs and support services to ensure students feel heard and to allow the college's faculty and staff to recognize and respond to student needs.

"I think we have been successful in allowing all of those to intermingle," he said.

The University of Arkansas is establishing the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, Leadership Development and Strategic Supports Institute, Murphy-Erby said. The university's Board of Trustees and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education approved the institute, and the grand opening is scheduled for September.

Murphy-Erby said the institute will strive to be the go-to resource for diversity, equity and inclusion in the region, state and beyond.

The university also provides the 360 Advising Program for incoming freshmen who've demonstrated a socio-economic need and the Razorbacks Enhancing Access to Campus Housing program for freshmen with financial needs, she said.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reports most racial and ethnic minority groups have higher poverty rates than the non-Hispanic white population. The foundation reports 11% of Arkansas non-Hispanic white residents lived in poverty in 2017 compared to rates of 25% for black and 22% for Hispanic residents.

Large racial and gender wage gaps in the U.S. remain, even as they have narrowed in some cases over the years. Among full- and part-time workers in the U.S., blacks in 2015 earned just 75% as much as whites in median hourly earnings and women earned 83% as much as men.

Looking at gender, race and ethnicity combined, all groups, with the exception of Asian men, lag behind white men in terms of median hourly earnings, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data. White men are often used in comparisons such as this because they are the largest demographic group in the workforce -- 33% in 2015.

After graduation

Kitchen said the lessons students learn about diversity and inclusiveness through the empowerment program will be valuable as they transition into the workforce.

"People automatically now see these graduates as precious commodities," he said. "They build an impressive resume of not just their academic experience, but their community service, their engagement, they're giving back."

Murphy-Erby said many employers are expecting diverse and inclusive perspectives from graduates.

"Research is really clear, particularly as we are moving in a more global work space, in a more global environment" she said. "Employers are demanding that skill set."

Smith said preparing students to be global citizens will help them be better employees as well.

"I don't think it could be wrong to teach them about how to be hospitable and how to be advocates and how to think about people's humanity first," she said.

Colleges have a responsibility to produce whole graduates who are able to lean into all kinds of spaces from a place of respect and who are passionate about building relationships to ensure they're effective in their chosen career paths, Smith said.

"It's about helping to develop and promote good citizens, and I think higher ed has a responsibility for that," she said.

NW News on 07/28/2019

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