February is Black History Month, and we should celebrate the university’s achievements in creating a diverse and inclusive culture. After all, at CU Denver students of color make up 40% of the total student body, and 57% of 2018 first-years are students of color. At the same time, it’s important to point out that equity in education remains a work in progress, here and at colleges and universities nationwide.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Digest of Education Statistics 2018, “In every year between 2000 – 2017 … the [college enrollment] rate for White young adults was higher than the rate for Black young adults.” For example, in 2017, only 36% of black young adults were enrolled in college. Furthermore, the statistics for African American faculty are disheartening. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports, “Of all full-time faculty in degree-granting postsecondary institutions in fall 2017, … “3 percent each were Black males, Black females, Hispanic males, and Hispanic females.” CU Denver’s faculty diversity is higher than the national statistics: The CU System Office of Institutional Research’s Staff Diversity report notes that 138 out of 667 full-time faculty are people of color.
Do Teachers of Color Really Matter?
Associate Professor & Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs Dorothy Garrison-Wade, PhD, stresses the importance of having faculty that represent their students. In the School of Education & Human Development, Garrison-Wade is currently conducting research with Associate Professor Margarita Bianco, PhD, on effective pathways to teaching. “One of the key questions asked the interviewees if they ever had a teacher of color,” Garrison-Wade explains. “It may be surprising that many people go through their entire elementary, secondary, and college career without ever having a black teacher. It’s a true reality.”
For readers wondering if teachers of color directly influence students of color, the answer is yes. “This matters because there is increasing evidence that having a teacher of the same race helps students of color succeed in school, as measured by test scores and suspension and dropout rates,” states a report titled “The Neglected College Race Gap,” published by the Center for American Progress. Omar Montgomery, director of Black Student Services at CU Denver’s Center for Identity & Inclusion, echoed this research: “When students see professors that look like them, it helps with retention.”
Equity Gap Extends Beyond College Admittance
Beyond the percentage of minority students, there are other factors to look at when considering equity in education. “Race & Ethnicity as a Barrier to Opportunity,” a report published in Feb. 2017 by Young Invincibles, analyzes other measures of inequity in postsecondary education, such as access and affordability, degree attainment, career success, and student loan repayment rates. “Gaps in college completion and postgraduate experiences such as loan burden also associate strongly with race and ethnicity,” the report states.
Minority students are more likely to attend for-profit colleges; to get a two-year degree instead of a four-year degree; to carry higher student loan debt; to have higher interest rates on their student loans; and to go into careers with lower earnings potential. “There are serious inequities even among students who do graduate from college,” according to “The Neglected College Race Gap.”
The Quest for Inclusivity
Fortunately, there are steps colleges and universities can take to address race-related inequality in education. The first step, of course, is to recognize that there are barriers for minority students. Chancellor Horrell established five Strategic Priorities for CU Denver in Fall 2016, including creating a more cohesive, collaborative, and inclusive culture. “The values of respect and inclusion are at the core of what defines CU Denver. Black History Month provides an opportunity to celebrate and honor the contributions of people of African descent in shaping America. It is important that we learn from that history as we strive to create a more inclusive future for all people,” she said.
As part of Chancellor Horrell’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series, Manuel Espinoza, PhD, will address the issue of equity in education in his lecture, “Masterpieces Made Visible: Educational Dignity, Social Dreaming, and the Colorado Constitution.” Espinoza, who teaches in the School of Education & Human Development, will discuss the origins and meanings of dignity in education, along with members of the Right to Learn (R2L) undergraduate research collective.
On campus, another important resource is the Center for Identity & Inclusion, which offers services and programs for underrepresented student groups. “We work together to make sure that traditionally disenfranchised or marginalized populations have a resource to help them matriculate, problem-solve, and have some type of representation on campus,” Montgomery said.
Given CU Denver’s location downtown, Montgomery thinks the university is well-positioned geographically and strategically to be the Number One choice for minority students in Colorado, especially those living in Denver. “We can be a champion for diversity,” he said.
Higher Education, Higher Purpose
After acknowledging the problem of racial equity in higher education, colleges and universities have to establish a concrete plan of action, which is why Chancellor Horrell’s Strategic Priority of Inclusive Culture is so important. Garrison-Wade believes the university can start by being intentional. “We have to figure out how to make it a university that black faculty and students want to come to and stay.”
Montgomery firmly believes that CU Denver is in a position of strength to attract, enroll, and retain people of color by providing an excellent education and a welcoming environment. Ultimately, he believes minority students and faculty should say “not just that they came here—but that they found it to be a fantastic experience.”