I invite you to look into the future with me. Picture a commencement photo, and try to identify which students were first-generation; which were from underprivileged urban backgrounds; who overcame rural poverty; which students were gay or lesbian, bisexual, or transgender; which students struggled with homelessness throughout part or all of their undergraduate studies; what students are undocumented; who has been incarcerated? We discuss many of these issues at length as higher education professionals with a strong calling to support and educate students around the topic of social justice. For many years, the literature may have told us that those students would not persist to earn a degree or credential, but through our commitment to uncovering truths and supporting students, combined with student resourcefulness, resilience, and determination, our efforts have helped the outliers achieve their academic goals.
As the study of higher education access, equity, and persistence has developed, many exceptional scholars and practitioners have supported underrepresented students through campus programming, academic publications and presentations, and collaborations between scholars, professional staff, and administrators. The work that has been done thus far has helped countless at-risk students to set and achieve their goals, no matter when or how they gained access to educational opportunities. For other groups, it is essential that scholars reaffirm their commitment to understanding how various aspects of a student’s identity converge, informing his or her intersectionality, and to support successful outcomes for students whose marginalized status transcends visible indicators of disadvantage. Mainstream media outlets and higher education journals alike have recently published stories of homeless college students who are determined to be successful, rural students who are seeking a space for support and understanding, first generation college students who are navigating a new environment with limited cultural or social capital, and other vignettes illustrating just how far-reaching the concepts of diversity and disadvantage can be. What I have noticed about many of these stories is that students who fit these descriptions are not a homogenous group. As I go forward with my own research interests, and applying them as an Institutional Research professional who studies attrition patterns and retention support in higher education, I’m committed to including the voices of scholars who explore issues of disadvantage and barriers to completion for students who may not look like the student population at my own institution. I believe that sharing across the boundaries of established research agendas will work to benefit all students, and likewise, benefit researchers and practitioners. As colleges and universities become more diverse, and students come to their studies with more varied experiences, we must also embrace the concept of intersectionality in our work lives and our professional relationships.
While student affairs/student services professionals, higher education researchers, and social justice educators work diligently to establish best practices and generate effective supports for students whose success may be at risk, students may reject some of the institutions with the greatest resources to provide assistance and dedicated professionals who are well educated in how to offer needed supports, instead choosing institutions that are an undermatch for their attributes, whether test scores, course grades, or measured writing and thinking ability. More distressing is the evidence that students who enter college from a background of disadvantage, may not persist to degree completion due to a perceived lack of campus support – despite genuine efforts by student affairs professionals to provide the requisite support systems for student success. As individual campuses and state systems of higher education institutions bolster their efforts to reach underrepresented student populations, organizations like the National Student Clearinghouse are supporting efforts to understand the trends at a high level. With national studies like the Student Achievement Measure project, institutions have access to data that may help shape appropriate interventions and support systems for their unique student population.
I’d like to make another invitation to you. As student support practitioners, educational researchers, and social justice advocates, please consider reaching out to your institution’s Office of Institutional Research staff. While much student support work relies on instinct, personal relationships, and one-on-one interactions with students, by partnering with colleagues who work with institutional data and benchmarking, it is possible to find important patterns among those essential personal relationships. Where higher education and social justice advocacy meet, there is an undeniable calling to assist students in every way we can. By joining with colleagues who do different work than the work you do – be it a different institution, a different research agenda, or a different department within your institution – by embracing intersectionality both personally and professionally, I believe we are better equipped to serve students by acknowledging their varied backgrounds and diverse lived experiences. In addition to national initiatives to explore and understand trends in college persistence and completion, IR staff may have access to institutional level data regarding enrollment, longitudinal data exploring persistence and graduation, and access to statistical software that allows for the juxtaposition of demographic features with attrition patterns, for example. In addition to partnering with institutional research staff for existing institutional data, there may be opportunities to collaborate across campus for effective and efficient data collection through homegrown and/or purchased student survey instruments. As an institutional researcher who shares the calling to social justice work, I feel compelled to use my talents in a way that will benefit marginalized students, and I look forward to working with colleagues on my own campus and others to support student success.
Dr. Sophie Gublo-Jantzen is a Senior Associate for Assessment and Institutional Research at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She has also conducted field research to explore the needs of resource deficient K-12 schools and college access for first generation rural students. Sophie has presented her research on rural students at ASHE and NACAC: Critical Components conferences. Dr. Gublo-Jantzen earned her EdD in Higher Education Leadership from the University of Rochester in 2015.