Dear Grossly Unequal

Dear Ms. Scholar, Recently I read that my university’s 6-year graduation rate for Black students is 1/3 that of White students. Any thoughts on this? What should we do?


Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Grossly Unequal, Yes, our 6-year graduation rate for White students is 53%, for Blacks is 17%, and 28% for Hispanic students (Institute of Education Sciences, 2018). We are doing badly by our minority students. These numbers  also hurt us as a university, as poor graduation rates affect funding from PASSHE and is a problem that Middle States has focused on in their reports.

Our minority and White students mostly come from different populations, which may partially explain the problem. In Ms. Scholar’s observations, our minority students are more likely to run into financial problems, come from an urban environment, and travel further to get here. As a result, they may have difficulties scheduling on time, getting the classes they need, and buying their texts. They may feel less comfortable here and prefer to return closer to home.

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Figure 1. Deficit-minded explanations of equity gaps and equity-minded questions (Finley & McNair, 2013).

While these may be barriers to timely graduation, such explanations come from a deficit mindset and focus more on problems in students rather than problems our institution can control (Finley & McNair, 2013). See Figure 1. Finley and McNair suggest, instead, that we should engage in a process of inquiry, exploring barriers to success and considering ways that we can address these barriers. They suggest we ask ourselves questions like these:

  1. How do underserved students connect their college learning with future workforce preparation?
  2. What learning experiences do underserved students value in developing the skills and competencies they view as important to employers?
  3. What factors do underserved students identify as barriers or obstacles to their participation in high-impact learning experiences? (Finley & McNair, 2013, p. 21)

We can also ask our students of color to reflect on such questions and listen to their answers.

Another way of addressing graduation rates is to increase the number and availability of high-impact practices (e.g., internships, service learning, student research, first-year seminars, study abroad experiences), which are reported to increase engagement, student retention, and graduation rates, especially among minority and other underserved students (Kuh, 2008; Finley & McNair, 2013). High-impact practices alone won’t be successful, however. They must be associated with meaningful interactions among students of color, faculty, and other students. Student reflections on their work and intentional connections between learning goals and teaching processes also increase retention and graduation rates (Clayton-Pedersen & Finley, 2010).

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether we are more likely to reach out and support people who look “like us.” And many of our faculty are White. Do our minority students receive (or perceive) the same amount of support as our white students? Ms. Scholar has had students of color claim that their hands were ignored by some faculty members.

Ms. Scholar also wonders whether our minority students see themselves in the readings, authors, photos, and examples used in our classes. (See, for example, Berchini, 2015.) Do we communicate that there is a place for our students of color at the table – or that they don’t belong? When Ms. Scholar’s daughter was younger, she counted the number of male and female characters in her daughter’s storybooks. Although she had attempted to provide a positive, girl-affirming (and person-affirming) set of books, she was dismayed to discover that the main characters were overwhelmingly male. In our classrooms, do we work toward a diversity of voices, images, and examples? Do we feel that we are being affirming and welcoming when we only minimally address diversity issues?

Reconsidering our teaching practices may help us structure our universities, programs, and classes to better serve the diverse needs of all our students, so that all of our students can learn well, meet their academic and personal goals, and graduate on time. We can improve our graduation rates.


Berchini, C. (2015). Why are all the teachers white? Education Week Teacher. Retrieved from

Clayton-Pedersen, A. R., & Finley, A. (2010). What’s next? Identifying when high-impact practices are done well. In J. E. Brownell & L. E. Swaner (Eds.). Five high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Finley, A., & McNair, T. (2013). Assessing underserved students’ engagement in high-impact practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Institute of Education Sciences. (2018). IPEDS. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-impact educational practices. High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter (pp. 9-11). Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o Jeanne Slattery <>


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2 Responses to Dear Grossly Unequal

  1. DrOlivas says:

    I don’t suppose we have data by semester (i.e., when students tend to leave the university as a function of the number of credits they have earned); do we? My instinct tells me that the efforts directed at first-year students are well placed, but I wonder if the statistical evidence agrees (or not!)…


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