Feature: Education for Learning and Well-Being: What About Underserved Students?

By Barry Checkoway, Senior Consultant, BTtoP, and Professor of Social Work, University of Michigan

Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) grant projects suggest that there are relationships between engaged learning, community engagement, and the psychosocial well-being of students during the college years. For example, some projects aim to make connections between civic engagement and students’ interpersonal relationships, social connectedness, and other characteristics.

These findings are a contribution to the knowledge base, to be sure, but they derive from a focus on students as a general category rather than on particular students and, as such, are most applicable to students from majority groups. Yet traditional minority groups such as low-income students or students of color are increasingly enrolling in higher education, and when differences between majorities and minorities are neglected in research projects, the findings are of limited use.

BTtoP is eager to contribute to this work on underserved student success as both a field of practice and subject of study which examines what happens when colleges and universities try to strengthen the well-being of first-generation or low-income students or students of color through educational programs that are designed with them in mind.

We know that diversity in the classroom contributes to the educational experience of the students, for when there are students whose approach to a given topic is informed by their diverse group identities—such as their race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, and other characteristics—it contributes to the diversity of perspectives, makes the discussion more complete and accurate, and enriches the learning for all. This was the core concept that the University of Michigan brought to its defense of affirmative action in higher education before the US Supreme Court.

We also know that first-generation and low-income students and students of color have special strengths—including motivation, resiliency, and grit—that can enable them to flourish in education and employment. But too many of these students face obstacles which frustrate the quality of their educational experience, and they are often forced to redouble their resolve in order to succeed despite the institutional tensions and barriers which affect them.

Some institutions respond to these tensions with “student services,” such as financial aid, counseling services, and the establishment of minority “centers” located on the edges of campus. While well-meaning, these programs often originate in student affairs offices rather than in academically-based educational initiatives led by faculty members who are—or should be—at the heart of their educational experience.

In contrast to the typically peripheral location and engagement of the student affairs offices, faculty members are strategically situated to enhance the well-being of these traditionally underserved students, through research projects and academic courses responsive to their particular situations. Unfortunately, faculty are conditioned—from their first days in graduate school and into their academic careers—to view student well-being as outside their primary work. Indeed, many faculty fear that if they concern themselves primarily with student well-being rather than with research and teaching, they might jeopardize their place in the academy, as institutional reward structures prioritize research and teaching, sometimes exclusively. In fact, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that faculty’s concern for students’ well-being would affect the scope or quality of their research or teaching in ways that might hinder their case for promotion or tenure, but this misperception and subsequent conditioning of faculty remains strong in the academy.

The time is right for BTtoP to invite proposals from faculty members and educators with ideas for academically-based initiatives—especially research projects, curricular initiatives, and specific courses designed to strengthen the well-being of all students, with special emphasis on first-generation, low-income, and minority students of color, in ways which are consistent with the core educational purposes of the institution. If colleges and universities were to broaden their perspectives and think more about all students, everyone would benefit, and higher education would more likely fulfill its mission in the changing society of which it is part.