Retaining Students at Minority Serving Institutions

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DEIBOnline LearningStudent Success
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Ting Jiang, Ph.D. is a Professor of Sociology at the Metropolitan State University of Denver


Retention has always been a buzzword in higher education, even before the pandemic. But for Minority Serving Institutions, retention means more than keeping students on the registration roster – it’s also a primary pathway to achieving educational equity.

Unique Demographics of Minority Serving Institutions

Students enrolled at Minority Serving Institutions share some commonalities. Many of them are not 18-year-olds fresh out of high school. Over the years, I have noticed in my personal experience that they are more likely to:

  • Be actively working with either full-time or multiple part-time jobs
  • Have a lot of family responsibilities
  • Be commuters rather than campus residents
  • Be the first-generation college students in their families
  • Be more dependent on financial aid to pay for college

Cultural Capital and Student Retention

There are various reasons students decide not to return to campus. Many of the obstacles come directly from the unique demographics of Minority Serving Institutions described above. Aside from time commitment due to work and family responsibilities, students are also at a disadvantage due to lack of cultural capital.

Cultural capital is intricately interwoven with social class. It is not taught in school curriculum, but instead is knowledge acquired during everyday interaction at home and during extracurricular activities. Cultural capital helps students navigate social institutions, such as the higher education system.

Therefore, first-generation college students might feel less prepared and supported when encountering obstacles as a freshman on campus. Things as small as locating a classroom on day one or finding the most affordable options for required course materials could potentially undermine college success.

Students’ Priority Lists and Retention Rates

In addition, students at Minority Serving Institutions sometimes have different priorities due to their unique demographics. Successful retention has everything to do with how well universities and colleges customize their approaches to better address students’ priority lists.

For example, a free bus or train pass might benefit students more than a discounted seasonal ski pass. An internship opportunity may be more helpful than a study abroad program. A 24/7 online tutoring service could be in much higher demand than in-person tutoring on campus. Making courses available online is no longer simply an option, but instead an imperative demanded by students who would otherwise not be able to complete their degrees on time.

Supporting Instructors to Support Students

These unique demographics present challenges as well as opportunities for retention efforts.

Instructors are the primary points of contact for students at school. A good instructor is not just a good teacher, but also a student advocator, counselor, cheerleader, and navigator to guide students through the higher education system.

To assist with instructors’ multi-dimensional roles, institutions need to provide an extensive and solid support network outside of the classroom to help students succeed. Services provided by this support network should include, among other things:

  • Academic support including tutoring, academic advising and IT support
  • Peer mentoring, skill building and leadership building
  • Career preparation
  • Counseling, including program to address mental health
  • Affordable medical care
  • Financial literacy, including scholarship opportunities and financial aid application assistance
  • Well-being support, including programs to address housing and food insecurities
  • Social and cultural events promoting an inclusive campus culture

In short, faculty and staff members across campus need to collaborate to provide multi-level and multi-dimensional support to address student needs, helping students advance to graduation without delay. This is the most effective way to achieve education equity.

To learn more about student retention, watch our Empowered Educator webinar on how to Promote Student Persistence with the 4 Rs of Retention.