Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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Nevada higher education leaders aim to close achievement gap for minority students

First Day of Class at UNLV

Steve Marcus

Students walk southbound in the quad area during the first day of the fall semester at UNLV Monday, August 23, 2010.

The student population at Nevada’s higher education institutions consistently are some of the nation’s most diverse, including at UNLV, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as the nation’s most diverse campus.

The graduation rate of those students, however, reflects an achievement gap among minority students.

Minority students made up 55.1% of the student population at Nevada’s four-year colleges in 2017, according to the Nevada System of Higher Education. In that same year, minority students only made up 43.1% of the total graduates.

Higher education officials are trying to change that. It’s not enough to simply have diversity at state universities — they also strive to have equal student achievement among all demographics and backgrounds.

“The real issue is that when individuals of diverse populations come to us, they graduate at the same rates of all of our students,” said Mark Doubrava, vice chairman of the Board of Regents, during an April meeting.

Diversity in learning institutions should be a strength, not a vulnerability, he said.

“We can’t continually use the excuse that we have lower graduation rates because we have poor kids, because we have black kids, and we have Latino kids,” he said.

Leaders are implementing a set of strategies and guidelines to close that gap.

All institutions starting July 1 were required to have a written protocol for sharing student success data. NSHE spokesman Francis McCabe said the goal behind the new guidelines is to ensure that school faculty and administrators not only have access to the data but also the opportunity to analyze it in order to identify high-risk students who many need help.

“The protocol will show how it will be accessible at all levels, from faculty to deans,” he said.

Why is there an achievement gap?

Nevada is dealing with a “demographic reality,” said Texas A&M human development researcher Luis Ponjuan, who was solicited by NSHE to research the higher education achievement gap.

“We’re having a change, not by design but by default,” he said. “We’re having more students that have been marginalized over the years, who are becoming more and more part of our education community. We have to think critically about what we need to do differently.”

Ponjuan focused on Latino students, who make up 42.2% of Nevada’s total student population, yet only 27% of them make it to college. Ponjuan said this is a systematic problem that can be traced to middle and high school, where students are told they need to be college ready, when in reality, colleges need to be ready for students of all different demographics, backgrounds and income levels.

Ponjuan said institutions need to stop using a “one-size-fits-all approach” when transitioning students into college. One way, he said, is to change the way schools do orientation, which he calls “too broad” of an initiative for students who don’t live on campus or have families to support.

“The problem is some students who come into college don’t have the luxury of taking one or two days off to go to orientation,” he said. “Some (schools) aren’t sensitive to students who have to work.”

Ponjuan added that colleges aren’t set up for students to feel comfortable to ask for extra help or special accommodations. This means training faculty to be proactive and sensitive to the needs of different students. He said the “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” mentality is antiquated and leaves a lot of students behind.

“When faculty were trained, they went to a college that was very different from the colleges students are attending now,” he said. “Their frame of reference is very different. When faculty work with students that don’t look like them, that don’t have the same economic means to participate, they start to think, ‘Well, I’m just going to present the material and interact with the students the way I was taught.”

A successful program

For administrators at Truckee Meadows Community College in Northern Nevada, closing the achievement gap with their minority student population has been a top priority over the last two decades, when they saw an uptick in the Latino population in Reno.

“One of the biggest challenges was with one group that had a significant disparity — Latino men,” said Estela Gutierrez, vice president of Student Services and Diversity at Truckee Meadows. “They were graduating at just 9% rate.”

Gutierrez said one of the first programs they implemented to close the gap was a summer bridge program specifically tailored for Latino men. The program provides first-generation students a “jump start” to college through wraparound services and study programs, serving between 150 and 200 students over the last decade, officials said.

It also follows students from enrollment to graduation in an effort to make sure they don’t fall behind. She noted that this is especially important for first-generation students, who aren’t always involved or have much financial support. In 2018, students in the bridge program graduated Truckee Meadows at 48%. Latino males not in the program only graduated at 25%.

“The biggest issue where students fall behind is when they are first generation,” Gutierrez said. “The majority of students who are first generation happen to be students of color ... it’s not just about having open doors, but also following these students and then pushing them to become full-time students.”

Since implementing the Summer Bridge Program, TMCC has seen a significant rise in graduation rates for Latino students.

After seeing the summer bridge program’s success, the community college began implementing similar programs to help other minority students, such as the Men of Color Mentorship Program as well as bridge programs for all first-generation students.

“Ever since implementing these programs, students in those programs have outpaced other students,” Gutierrez said. "It’s about maximizing technology. It’s about breaking silos between divisions.”

NSHE leaders are asking all colleges to scale up their existing support programs like the ones at Truckee Meadows.

“We have looked at the data and we know for certain that we are close to closing the achievement gap,” Gutierrez said.