Author: Jessica Brathwaite, Senior Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Traditional reforms to developmental education have increased students’ access to and success in college-level math and English courses in their first year. However, inequities persist for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
Developmental education reforms were initially positioned as a way to improve overall student outcomes and reduce equity gaps, under the assumption that the underserved student groups most harmed by developmental education would no longer be held back by long and possibly unnecessary course sequences. This approach assumed that providing all students with increased access to college-level work would equitably increase enrollment and success in coursework, but this proved to sustain long-standing inequities.
The next wave of developmental reform will require colleges to interrogate the ways current policies and practices overlook or compound obstacles to student learning and success. Practically speaking, there may be discomfort with developing interventions to address the needs of a particular group of students, but equity is achieved by addressing the institutional and societal barriers that particular students face with the goal of making the playing field more even. It is also quite likely that students outside of that group will also benefit from fewer barriers and more support.
Culturally Relevant Campus Environments and Student Supports
Dr. Samuel Museus developed a framework explaining how culturally engaging campus environments can mitigate the impact of external influences and student characteristics to create a strong sense of belonging, academic dispositions and academic behaviors that lead to increased academic success. A college has created a culturally engaging campus environment when their offerings and supports are culturally relevant and responsive. This model is designed as a place where students can establish relationships with faculty and staff who share or understand their cultural background and values and feel responsible for helping them succeed. A culturally engaging campus environment has humanizing learning spaces where students’ cultures are affirmed and incorporated into the curriculum.
Finally, support is offered holistically and proactively, so students feel well supported to succeed and comfortable seeking support when needed. Institutions can become a culturally engaging campus environment by developing these culturally relevant and responsive supports, but they first need to identify the obstacles students face. Culturally sustaining student supports and offerings are developed in response to students’ expressed needs and evolve over time in response to the needs of the student population. Identifying and addressing the obstacles students face may seem daunting but designing culturally sustaining campus environments can be as simple or complex as institutional context and capacity allows for.
Methods for collecting data from students may include an informal conversation, an online survey, communication in virtual learning software or formal focus groups. At a small tribal college, I spoke with a college leader who surveyed their entire reservation to find out more about a housing problem. This stood out as a strong and simple method for identifying obstacles to student success because it was low maintenance, included students and their families and elicited information to help develop a solution. Additional interviews at this college shed light on the culturally engaging and sustaining nature of this institution.
Faculty and staff reported feeling a personal responsibility for student success, which requires them to act as detectives and problem solvers on behalf of their students. All students, not just Indigenous students, reported feeling well supported and comfortable sharing their experiences with faculty and staff.
Identifying problems and building strong relationships are necessary to collect data on students’ experiences and to design culturally sustaining interventions.
Collecting data provides an opportunity for institutions to use what they know about students’ experiences and life circumstances to engage in people-centered improvement. Institutions must create regular opportunities to discuss information received from students, communities, faculty and staff. Trusting and open relationships between and amongst faculty, staff and students are key to this process. Data and anecdotes should be used to uncover obstacles and identify potential solutions — not as a weapon against faculty, staff or students. Data must also be collected and used to support students along their entire trajectory, not just during their first year, as the positive impact of developmental education reforms fade after the first year and the type of obstacles students face change along their postsecondary journey.
To integrate traditional developmental education reforms and culturally sustaining student supports, institutions will need to engage in people-centered improvement. Questions remain about how developmental education reforms need to be tailored to create an equitable experience for students and to achieve equitable success. Institutions will only know what works best for students and their communities by asking them.
Institutions and the research community have a prime opportunity to reach out to students who have been unsuccessful in a class to understand their experiences. Research shows that when asked, students will articulate the reasons for their success, or lack thereof, and those reasons often include the relationship they have with faculty and staff. Culturally sustaining developmental education reform will be characterized by institutions supplementing quantitative data and existing research findings with qualitative information from key stakeholders to improve or develop interventions that address student obstacles.