Occasionally -- often in fact -- school administrators tell me how hard they are trying to recruit and retain students. Usually this means that a couple of people on the staff with a passion for it, sometimes under the direction of a school president who shares this passion, are working with recruitment and student retention.
The numbers are staggering about how few minority students make it through. The Urban Educational Institute says that only 2.5% of Hispanic and African American boys in Chicago will complete a 4 year college degree by the age of 25. When you consider that this includes a VAST majority of such graduates making it through state schools and HBCUs, private evangelical institutions are failing abysmally at successfully providing education to about 25% of our country - most of whom come from higher than national average religiously committed communities.
These schools are often in close proximity to an urban area that has much higher percentage of Hispanic and Black residents. Yet they are very white institutions graduating even whiter graduating classes.
Next week I will be speaking with a faculty group about this issue. Because it has funding implications for these schools it is a high priority. I'll share some thoughts and invite your comments.
At the heart of the issue are a series of things all of which come back to what the institution understands and values.
- Culture-blindness. The institutions neither understand, nor value Black or Hispanic culture. They might even dress up some of the worship or school's art exhibits but beyond this they rarely go out of the way to learn, value, appreciate or celebrate the culture. Students often feel not just "not valued" but often devalued. The institutions often think they are culture or color neutral, which demonstrate the collective blindness and lack of understanding.
- Sense of Safety. In my experience when one crosses cultural boundaries it leads to feeling unsafe until one begins to understand the culture -- truly speak the language so to speak -- or perhaps when a truly trustworthy person acts as an ambassador in a highly personal way. "Where should we go on vacation?" for a white family is a very different question for that of a black family. Whites, as the dominant culture assume the whole country is fair game, safe, approachable. . . except for urban neighborhoods possibly. But students from minority communities are likely to feel unsafe in a cornfield, where many of these institutions exist. The cornfield example is just one of many I could highlight. . . but this gets back to the lack of understanding that most white institutions exhibit. Good intentions don't overcome this. Inside the institution there are many, many other things that are prone to create a lack of sense of safety, a discomfort, a distrust. This discomfort or fear makes staying focused on school a huge challenge. How long would you stay in a place where you fear you will be treated unfairly, you feel discomfort, or sense there are lots of unwritten rules no one is sharing with you?
- The lack of cultural interpreters. These institutions usually have precious few people who are around (classrooms, athletic fields, lunch rooms, hallways, dorms, etc..) who can help Black/Hispanic students understand, laugh about, negotiate, and express healthy anger about the context they find themselves in. This has to do with economics as much as race. The cultural jump from a low income household to a middle class or upper middle class school environment is as tough as the racial span.
- Lack of retention of minority faculty.
- Lack of minority leadership.
- Lack of sacrificing sacred cows.
- The donor base.
- Racial and Cultural isolation of faculty.
- Theological and Sociological arrogance.
I would love to ask those of you who have braved this territory a few questions:
1. If you as a minority made it through, what was the thing that helped you most?
2. If you didn't, what was the biggest factor(s)?
3. What is the thing you find most troublesome about your experience?
4. Want to share a crazy story?