Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Degree of Success

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

A Degree of Success

Article excerpt

`Stereotype Vulnerability' Being Overcome As Black Students Raise Their SAT Scores And Collect More Degrees

For years the whispered joke at some of the nation's most selective institutions compared higher education for many minority students to roach motels: Students walk in but they don't walk out -- at least not with degrees.

Now, not only are minority students succeeding, they are surpassing academic expectations. Part of the academic success story is told in the slow, but steady, rise of Scholastic Assessment Test scores among Blacks and other minority students. So much for walking in to higher education.

The walking out punchline is being undercut by an even more prized statistic from the College Board showing a steady increase in recent years in the number of degrees awarded to Black students.

Rising Expectations

Even with improvements, however, a performance gap remains between Black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts.

"The thing that accounts for the gap is the treatment that the kids get," says Dr. Abdul Ali Shabazz, a mathematics professor and graduate programs coordinator at Clark Atlanta University (GA). "Test scores have nothing to do with it."

Shabazz is part of the corps of higher education professionals who assert that the difference in academic outcomes between Black and white students does not have to remain wide.

Instead of approaching minority students as stepchildren of the academy, Shabazz and a growing number of scholars insist there are ways to close the performance gap between Black and white students without remedial coursework.

With more student collaborative study, attentive and sensitive instruction and a set of lofty expectations, as well as direction in how to get the most out of the undergraduate experience, people whose higher education careers were not expected to survive the maiden undergraduate year are joining the ranks of academic high-steppers.

"The ethos about how to handle minority students is that they lack sufficient preparation to do the work, and that viewpoint has gotten so institutionalized through the years that everybody just takes for granted that the way to handle these students is to give them remedial programs," says Dr. Claude Steele, a Stanford University psychologist. "I think that just the opposite works."

`Stereotype Vulnerability'

Steele, the twin brother of conservative Black scholar Shelby Steele, is one of the most vocal proponents of changing the approach to Black and other minority students.

He claims that Blacks often are at the low end of the performance gap on standardized tests and coursework because of a subtle form of discrimination that encourages failure.

Because of what Steele calls "stereotype vulnerability," minority students are affected by "a sense of anxiety about being judged stereotypically," he says.

In other words, when they perceive that they are in a situation in which poor performance will confirm low expectations, those perceptions drive their performance.

Their focus on the task at hand is blurred by "a sense of apprehension about fulfilling the assumptions that are held about them," he says.

Says Steele: "They should have challenging work and high standards, instead of remedial work and low standards.

"One big thing that's easy to do is just get rid of those remedial things and demand more, rather than less. A lot of what's wrong is the presumption that they can't do the work."

The rest of the formula for boosting student retention is built around a few common sense notions, he says. At the heart of the drive to retain students must be mechanisms to convince students that their instructors are on their side, Steele says.

He says it is important to assert to students "that they have the potential for building strong relationships with adults and teachers so that they believe in their potential. …

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