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Roadblocks Don’t Have to Be Dead Ends: On Clearing the Path for Black College Students

College life is stressful. Different rules. New people. Unfamiliar surroundings. From the founding of the first institution of higher learning in America in 1636, the college was an incubator for personal, professional, relational, and spiritual development. That's why it is a travesty that white student enrollment continues to surpass that of students of color.

Until fairly recently, few faith-based organizations have taken the time or made an effort to exclusively examine the unique stressors facing Black College Students. At Sub:Culture, we acknowledge that spiritual, cultural, economic, and academic challenges are not unique to any college student. Each problem is experienced by a particular student at one time or another. But for students of color, all four stressors seem to happen — simultaneously. Sub:Culture Inc. is dedicated to researching these challenges and helping students deal successfully with them.  Our mission is to clear the path forward for Black College Students in every arena.

Spiritual Barriers

Researchers reported  three significant findings:

  1. Spirituality is a source of support and represents one of few healthy outlets and coping strategies open to African American students,

  2. Spirituality anchors other identities, and

  3. Tension exists between the participants' spiritual selves and the other "selves" with which they identify.

This tension is due in large part to the unfortunate foundational realities of the dissonance caused by white supremacy, whether covert or blatant, internalized, or systematized. Regardless, Spiritual well-being is a core human component and provides the driving force to give stability, meaning, and fulfillment in life. According to the late Karl Artur Vilhelm Moberg, a Swedish journalist, author, playwright, historian, and debater, spirituality is a "…sense of transcendence beyond one's circumstances and other dimensions."

At Sub:Culture Inc., we beg to differ. Spirituality should be integrated into one's circumstances, making, at the very least, the challenges more bearable. Often, this is not the case. Spirituality and the quest for meaning within Christianity, in particular for students of color is often diminished by the unique stressors they face as well as their unaddressed cultural core concerns. The intersection of whiteness in the Christian imagination has indelibly created an inhospitable environment for them. This reality calls for a reimagined method and ethos for leadership, discipleship, and evangelism, respectively among Black College Students.

Cultural Barriers

Social and cultural challenges fill University students' lives already overwhelmed with academic or economic demands. Although some students may overcome these challenges well, others may experience high levels of stress and low life satisfaction as a negative response to them. Therefore, developing a meaningful and tangible spirituality is critical for adjusting university student's life, and enhancing life satisfaction.

During the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election, many students were dismissed as "coddled" or "intolerant." What had they done? They simply worked to raise awareness about the hostile climate for students of color on many of America's college campuses.

The debate continues. Perpetual doubt regarding black college students' expressions of concerns about racism often assumes that black college students, even on Ivy League campuses, and white college students are on equal footing. Access to Ivy League schools doesn't erase the racism that students experience from their white classmates and professors.

Just one example is locating a mentor. A 2014 study conducted by researchers at New York University, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania discovered that when students approached instructors for guidance, the teaching staff were more responsive to white men than women and people of color.

An ample amount of research shows that black college students have to fight for recognition and respect on college campuses — even on predominantly white ones — as a result, students are saying they've had enough of being treated as the "other" at their own universities. Not only is enrollment in the best-funded and most selective four-year institutions 75 percent white, but nearly a third of Black students with high school grade-point averages of 3.5 or better also end up at community colleges; this is in contrast to 22 percent of white students with the exact same grades. Black students have to face assumptions about competence and interest levels from their professors as well as their fellow students.

Socio-Economic Barriers

Students are struggling to pay for non-tuition costs, such as housing, food, child care, transportation, books, and emergency expenses. Students don't have the information they need to make crucial decisions about where to go to college, what to study, and how they will afford it. Seventy-two percent of black students go into debt to pay for their education, compared to 56 percent of white students, yet 72 percent of white students finish a four-year degree within six years, compared to 46 percent of Black students.

According to The Evolving Challenges of Black College Students, Terrell L. Strayhorn, Director of the Center for Higher Education Research & Policy, writes, "…one line of research related to black college students' choice process examines students' aspirations or plans to attend college."

Strayhorn expands on traditional econometric models and includes social and cultural capital "…as proxies to interpret expectations, tastes, and uncertainty when making college choices."

Black students are 11% more apt than whites to enroll in a four-year school if there were no barriers.  Thus it is not difficult to imagine why thirty-three percent of white Americans 25 and older have at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 19 percent of Black Americans.

Academic Barriers

There are multiple barriers to college entry and achievement. One significant hurdle is reasonable costs, as college prices and student debt levels have risen to astonishing levels. Instead, students are required to pass academic placement tests and show sufficient readiness for postsecondary study. Amid many demographic studies, national education statistics, and enrollment data, research continues to show that a smaller number of black students are registering in college.

Dr. Joan Holmes, Special Assistant to the President fo equity and Special Programs at Hillsborough Community College, posed two questions:

  1. Are there factors related to success for some populations that may be associated with success for others, and

  2. Due to limited resources such as academic advising, financial aid, and tutoring, or the lack of knowledge of how and where to access resources impede the academic success of black students?

Based on subsequent studies, Dr. Holmes found:

  1. Intrinsic motivation to achieve in college is not the initial impetus to motivate most black students from low income and/or first-generation backgrounds to be successful, and

  2. Black students need to be persuaded that a college experience is a "good fit" for them, and

  3. Black students are motivated through the college culture by intangibles such as mutual respect, equal treatment, structured programs, and a "sense of belonging."

Race is a more overt marker and is more likely to be registered in the way it influences education. Race and social class influences learning in many other ways; For instance, people from a racial minority group rarely have a family history of higher education. Leaving first-generation students to grapple with: College Readiness, Lack of Self-esteem, College Adjustment, and Family Support, and low degrees Self-Efficacy.

The Takeaway

Even when a student overcomes these challenges and gets into college, costly emergencies can happen and knock the student off their stride. Obstacles that are mere roadblocks for their white counterparts are dead ends for our students. That's why Sub:Culture Inc. is committed to stopping urgent crises from disrupting the educational track.

To participate in restorative justice and create a more equitable society, we must narrow the wealth gap. We work to reduce the gap created by financial inequalities and keep black students in school. Our work has implications which ring through the future, and together we can work for a more just society

When more people of color have access to continuous education, when more colleges and universities are willing to take a chance on someone who doesn't look like them, when faith-based organizations focus on the unique concerns and hesitancy created by the leaven of white supremacy--innovative ideas can flow, reconciliation can be achieved, and corporate leadership pipelines can be established. Black College students can not only reinvest in their communities, but they can also create restorative societal change.


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