Research News

UW’s Conrad explores practices for ‘Educating a Diverse Nation’

April 13, 2015
by Todd Finkelmeyer

UW-Madison’s Clifton Conrad has spent more than three decades studying race and gender in higher education, visiting more than 40 historically black colleges and universities as part of his far-reaching work as an expert witness in major civil rights cases.

But not until he and colleague Marybeth Gasman embarked on a three-year national study of student success at minority-serving institutions (MSIs) did he develop a deeper appreciation for these colleges and universities, and a far better understanding of “how much many of us in higher education can learn from MSIs about cultivating equal educational opportunity for all -- especially racially and ethnically diverse students, and low-income students. “

“One thing I’ve come to realize is that we need to abandon this one-size-fits-all way of conducting business that is typical at so many colleges and universities,” says Conrad, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and a faculty member in the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Clifton Conrad
Mainstream colleges and universities, says Conrad, tend to serve middle-income and affluent white students fresh out of high school. That’s not the case at the MSIs he spent time at. Conrad emphasizes how the majority of students he met during his research talked about the challenges they were facing, including: major family obligations; a lack of study skills; an absence of a positive self-identity; and English-as-a-second-language obstacles. Conrad adds that many students also feared not being properly prepared for college-level work and were uncertain about how a college degree would help them down the road.

Conrad and Gasman, the director of the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania, have co-authored a book about their research findings titled, “Educating a Diverse Nation.” Their research examined a dozen MSIs -– including historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and Asian American and Pacific Islander-serving institutions.

The book, published in March by Harvard University Press, offers an on-the-ground perspective of life at these colleges and universities, and shines a spotlight on innovative programs and practices that are advancing students’ abilities to learn, stay in school and graduate.

Educating a Diverse NationConrad will be talking about this research during a free public book talk at noon on Thursday, April 23, in room 159 of the Education Building. This discussion is being co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education (WISCAPE), the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), African Studies Program, the Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement, and the Multicultural Student Center.

The practices at MSIs that are helping nontraditional students flourish include: collaborative and peer-led teaching and learning; culturally-relevant and real-world problem solving; and the breaking down of silos along with blurring the roles of faculty, staff and students.

As an example of collaborative learning – in which students learn with and from one another -- Conrad explains how freshmen at Morehouse College in Atlanta who are majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are paired with sophomores and juniors to help bolster success in these classes.

“We saw students helping each other as peer leaders,” he says. “The minority-serving institutions we visited are rejecting mainstream cultures of independent learning and fierce competition. They are placing far more emphasis on collaboration and making sure that everyone is engaged in mutually reinforcing teaching and learning.”

As a way to make their education relevant to the lives of students, Conrad says faculty at Salish Kootenai College, a tribal institution in Pablo, Montana, often invite students to collaborate with them in conducting hands-on research on local issues, such as mercury in the water.  Through such real-world problem solving, students become more invested in college and they appreciate how much their work can contribute to their communities.

Meanwhile, in an effort to meet the varied needs of individual students, MSIs are creating cultures in which the traditional roles and responsibilities of administrators, faculty, staff and students are often blurred -- with all parties taking personal responsibility for the persistence and the learning of students.

Conrad notes how Paul Quinn College in Dallas, for example, has a motto of, “We Over Me.”

“It’s more than a slogan,” he says. “It really is expressed in the everyday life of everyone at the college.”

“Because persistence, retention and graduation rates are sometimes a little lower at these MSIs, I think people overlook what a terrific job many of them are doing in light of the diverse challenges that students are facing,” says Conrad. “What struck me again and again was the array of challenges which required institutions to move away from the one-size-fits-all algorithm. These institutions have developed practices that are empowering students who have been put on the margins of higher education for far too long.”

As the United States is rapidly becoming a far more diverse nation, Conrad says that it has become imperative for our mainstream colleges and universities -- especially predominantly white institutions — to have an “awakening” of the many challenges that traditionally underrepresented students are often facing.

“And, in turn, they can learn much from MSIs about practices to help ensure their persistence and their learning,” says Conrad. “We all should be looking to these institutions for innovative practices that are working.”