LAWRENCE — Across the country, black students are underrepresented in higher education, even while colleges and universities look for ways to boost enrollment. A University of Kansas doctoral student has conducted and presented research on barriers to college access and calls for higher education outreach to communities, schools and parents as well as collaboration amongst themselves to make college more accessible.
Bryon Keefe Williams researched academic literature about roadblocks that tend to keep black youths from attending college. The findings show students of color are disproportionately affected by low socioeconomic and first-generation college status, and they are more likely to attend poorly funded urban schools. While those problems may be widely acknowledged, Williams calls for a more malleable process to college enrollment, including collaboration among institutions and outreach to bring down those barriers.
“As a recruiter, what I see happen is colleges and universities only focus on very specific things. We’re not thinking in a strategic way about what the family, school and community contexts look like for African-American students and their families,” Williams said.
Williams cites the work of education scholar Laura Perna, who created a conceptual framework on what influences higher education participation.
“The beauty of her model is it can be applied to any population,” Williams said. “I apply it to African-American, Latinx and other minority populations primarily in my work. What her model says is there are layers of influence that affect students’ postsecondary decisions.”
Perhaps chief among those influences are parents and family. Black students are often first-generation students, meaning their parents did not attend college. That often results in parents who want their children to go to college and are invested in their future, yet they do not have the experience to know what is necessary to get there.
“It gets implied often, in my opinion, that families of first-generation students aren’t helping. I don’t think that’s the case. They want their kids to attend college, but they end up trusting things to the schools and telling their kids, ‘If you get good grades, you’ll go to college,’” Williams said. “There’s much more to it than that. It’s not just about grades, it’s also about information.”
To further that point, the schools that parents entrust are often underfunded and have higher poverty rates, overworked teachers and counselors, students facing food security issues, homelessness and other challenges.
Barriers also happen in the context of higher education, including admissions and financial aid. Black students’ test scores often fall below those of white counterparts due to a number of factors such as lack of understanding of test importance or lack of access to test prep materials. Low-income families often lack information as well about how to apply for financial aid and often believe they do not qualify. Many also find the process of applying to college as unaffordable, compounded by the cost of college itself, and those problems are exacerbated by a lack of standardization in the financial aid application process across institutions.
Finally, barriers exist in policy, Williams argues in his research. The move toward improved curriculum such as Common Core Standards has left some populations at a disadvantage, with schools and families not knowing if there is state support to implement the curricula.
While higher education does not have all the answers, Williams argues institutions can do a great deal to address each of them. The key lies in collaboration among institutions, even if they are viewed as competitors in the recruitment of students, including diverse student populations. A doctoral student at KU, Williams is also assistant director of college access and community outreach at Kansas State University. In his research presentations, he calls for collaboration among institutions, especially those in geographical proximity, to help address barriers facing black student populations.
“I think what we can do in higher education is help address issues such as curriculum by working with schools to help improve education for English language learners, in mathematics and areas addressed in Common Core,” Williams said. “We need to ask schools how we can help enhance the curriculum that is being presented to students. I think we also need to have conversations about how we can standardize some of the processes so people can apply to any institution for financial aid or admissions in the same ways.”
Higher education can address the family context by working with those in largely black districts and schools with high numbers of potential first-generation college students to ensure parents have access to information about what is needed to qualify for college. In the policy arena, advocating for federal funding of programs such as TRIO, which help underrepresented populations reach higher education, could be especially beneficial.
Williams, who works closely with Eugene Parker, assistant professor of educational leadership & policy studies at KU, has presented his research at a number of conferences, including the Summit on Access, Persistence and Completion and Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government. He will present at the upcoming Educate U: Recruit, Retain, Remain at William Jewell College. He acknowledges that while every region has unique challenges, addressing those barriers in ways that make sense for students, families and communities in the area will benefit them and higher education as well.
“The overall model and research are applicable anywhere. How you use it may be different, but if you do, you’ll not only have more African-American students attending college, but more qualified students attending,” Williams said.