The Achievement Gap: Widening Our Lens

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Last week, Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs professionals, spoke on my home campus at The College of New Jersey, and made a claim about the future of higher education that struck me: The achievement gap is our next great civil rights challenge. He’s right, but I think responding effectively to this call to re-envision education and higher education will require that we change the cultural connotation of “civil rights.”

Here just after Black History Month, shortly after celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and remembrances of his death and that of Malcolm X, and after media coverage of the anniversary of the Selma march and the movie, Selma, we would be tempted to continue to think of civil rights as a black/white binary. However, the skills gap is wider and more complex than America’s longest standing racial binary.

Kruger presented as part of his talk data that we should all be familiar with: tomorrow’s students are increasingly first-generation, increasingly Hispanic/Latino, and increasingly from lower income families. He also talked about how few African American students, particularly young men, are earning bachelor’s degrees. So, it is all of these categories of student who experience the achievement gap in differing degrees and are, therefore, part of this next civil rights challenge Kruger was heralding.

In urban centers, we know why this is happening: the long, slow suburbanization of middle class families, leaving poorer communities in America’s cities. Demographically, we know that this also means urban populations that are primarily ethnic minorities and new immigrants. But what about rural areas? What about first generation students in the American South and Midwest? Many of them are not ethnic minorities but do come from lower income families and face the same challenges as other first generation, low income students: a primary and secondary education that did not prepare them for the challenges of higher education, difficulty funding higher education, and—perhaps most importantly—no way to easily understand and navigate the complex system of a college or university in order to be successful.

It is all of these students who are the future (and even the present) of higher education. They are not the students that many schools are used to supporting and educating, but they must become so. If we widen our sense of the civil rights issue of the achievement gap, we see all of our students and their collective challenges. This will allow us to put into place the things they need on our campuses to succeed. Success is both retention and persistence, and we need to talk about them, about why they aren’t happening, and how they could.

Come back next week for a follow-up to this piece where I talk about that “how.”

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