I can’t see the forest through these damn trees: A response to “Study: Boise State Minority Grad Rate Drops”

Latino208 Roberts art graphic

A recent article entitled “Study: Boise State minority grad rate drops” (Dec. 2) by Bill Roberts shares (essentially) that while the graduation rate for white students at Boise State University has improved between 2003 and 2013 (up 4.83%), that since the graduation rate for under-represented minority students has actually declined (down 4.9%), this means that the gap between the graduation rate for these students and under-represented minority students has grown in that time (a 9.7% increase).  For access to the report that he cites you can visit: https://edtrust.org

Boise State University responded to Roberts by both updating the information since the study was completed (2013) which indicates that over the past two years this graduation gap has closed from 9.9% to 5.9% (averaged over two years) and makes the point that “Boise State is graduating more students from under-represented minority backgrounds every year – in fact, that number of graduates has more than doubled in the past five years alone” (Greg Hahn, university spokesman).   Anyone that has walked around campus over the last ten years can attest to the changing face of the student body. Simply put, there is more racial and ethnic diversity in the Boise State University student body than there has ever been.

Ironically, Roberts’ article underscores the problem with an approach to diversity focused ONLY on student numbers. This is why simply walking around campus and noticing the skin color of the folks with the backpacks and flip-flops doesn’t give us anything but a fraction of the picture. The piece by The Education Trust does not go into great detail, but in it’s examples of success it scratches the surface of how some schools (Washington State University, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and San Diego State University) have increased graduation rates for ALL students by a commitment to diversity which includes closing this graduation gap. What they (and Roberts) fail to mention, is that in each of these examples, their success with students is a direct result of  embedding this commitment within a larger and multilayered institutional effort to advance diversity goals at multiple levels.

Take a look at these schools’ websites and take note of the differences in the diversity of faculty and staff. While there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of under-represented students enrolling at Boise State University, there has not been a corresponding effort to grow (much less retain) this kind of diversity in the ranks of faculty and staff. What this means is that while the university paints a picture of a campus where all types of people are welcomed, when the students arrive and go into a classroom…or talk to staff, their role models don’t reflect anywhere near the same diversity as the incoming class. This creates an experiential dissonance for a student who is somehow supposed to reconcile how coming from their community of origin to a predominantly white institution is not an abandonment of their own identity (what they might see as “selling out”). And over and over, the person standing in front of them as the model of who they are supposed to become implicitly reinforces the message that, as relates to their ethnic identity, they are supposed to become (like) someone that they are not.

The inability to recognize this dissonance is the root issue. As long as diversity at ANY university is measured only by the ranks of the growth in either the students or even the symmetry of their degree attainment by race we are stuck in a place that is doomed to disappoint. Comprehensive and multi-layered Cultural change is key…and this includes not only students, but faculty and staff, the curriculum, the strategic plan, the espoused values, the host city and every little thing that would make the difference between a student who feels like they are in a world made by and for others but that they cannot see themselves reflected in every time they step outside of their door. In the city of trees, we should know to be more mindful about the temptation to get lost in counting the record number of saplings when we can step back and see that the soil is keeping so many of them from reaching the sky.

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