This post started out as nothing more than a humble pie correction; something similar to what you might find at the bottom of the first page of your local newspaper (if you are lucky enough to still have a local newspaper). But as I continued to wrestle with what I was trying to say, I realized that this post wasn’t really about a correction at all. Instead, this post is about what happens when a changing student population simply outgrows the limits of the old labels you’ve been using to categorize them.
Last week, I told you about a stunningly high 89.8% retention rate for Augustana’s students of color, more than five percentage points higher than our retention rate for white students. During a meeting later in the week, one of my colleagues pointed out that the total number of students of color from which we had calculated this retention rate seemed high. Since this colleague happens to be in charge of our Admissions team, it seemed likely that he would know a thing or two about last year’s incoming class. At the same time, we’ve been calculating this retention rate in the same way for years, so it didn’t seem possible that we suddenly forgot how to run a pretty simple equation.
Before I go any further, let’s get the “correction,” or maybe more precisely “clarification,” out of the way. Augustana’s first-to-second year retention rate for domestic students of color this year is 87.3%, about a point higher than the retention rate for domestic white students (86%). Still impressive, just not quite as flashy. Furthermore, our first-to-second year retention rate for international students is 88.4%, almost two percentage points higher than our overall first-to-second year retention rate of 86.5%. Again, this is an impressive retention rate among students who, in most cases, are also dealing with the extra hurdle of adapting to (if not learning outright) Midwestern English.
So what happened?
For a long time, Augustana has used the term “multicultural students” as a way of categorizing all students who aren’t white American citizens raised in the United States. Even though the term is dangerously vague, when almost 95% of Augustana’s enrollment was white domestic students (less than two decades ago) there was a reasonable logic to constructing this category. Just as categories can become too large to be useful, so too can categories become so small that they dissipate into a handful of individuals. And even the most caring organization finds it pretty difficult to explicitly focus itself on the difficulties of a few individuals.
Moreover, this categorization allowed us to construct a group large enough to quantify in the context of other larger demographic groups. For example, take one group of students from which 10 of 13 return for a second year and compare it with another group of students from which 200 of 260 return for a second year. Calculated as a proportion, both groups share the same retention rate. But in practice, the retention success for each group seems very different; one group lost very few students (3) while the other group lost a whole bunch (60). In the not so distant past when an Augustana first-year class would include maybe 20 domestic students of color and 5 international students (out of a class of about 600), grouping these students into the most precise race, ethnicity, and citizenship categories would almost guarantee that these individuals would appear as intriguing rarities or, worse yet, quaint novelties. Under these circumstances, it made a lot of sense to combine several smaller minority groups into one category large enough to 1) conceptualize as a group with broadly similar needs and challenges and 2) quantify in comparable terms to other distinct groups of Augustana students.
In no way am I arguing that the term “multicultural” was a perfect label. As our numbers of domestic students of color increased, the term grew uncomfortably vague. Equally problematic, some inferred that we considered the totality of white students to be a monoculture or that we considered all multicultural students to be overflowing with culture and heritage. Both of these inferences weren’t necessarily accurate, but as with all labels, seemingly small imperfections can morph into glaring weaknesses when the landscape changes.
Fast forward fifteen years. Entering the 2017-18 academic year, our proportion of “multicultural students” has increased by over 400%, and the combination of domestic students of color and international students make up about 27% of our total enrollment – roughly 710 students. Specifically, we now enroll enough African-American students, Hispanic students, and international students to quantitatively analyze their experiences separately. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should prioritize one method of research (quantitative) over another (qualitative). I am arguing, however, that we are better able to gather evidence that will inform genuine improvement when we have both methods at our disposal.
After a conversation with another colleague who is a staunch advocate for African-American students, I resolved to begin using the term “students of color” instead of multicultural students. Although it’s taken some work, I’m making slow progress. I was proud of myself last week when I used the term “students of color” in this blog without skipping a beat.
Alas, you know the story from there. Although I had used an arguably more appropriate term for domestic students of color in last week’s post, I had not thought through the full implications of shifting away from an older framework for conceptualizing difference within our student body. Clearly, one cannot simply replace the term “multicultural students” with “students of color” and expect the new term to adequately include international students. At the same time, although the term “multicultural” implies an air of globalism, it could understandably be perceived to gloss over important domestic issues of race and inequality. If we are going to continue to enroll larger numbers across multiple dimensions of difference, we will have to adopt a more complex way of articulating the totality of that difference.
Mind you, I’m not just talking about counting students more precisely from each specific racial and ethnic category – we’ve been doing that as long as we’ve been reporting institutional census data to the federal government. I guess I’m thinking about finding new ways to conceptualize difference across all of its variations so that we can adopt language that better matches our reality.
I’d like to propose that all of us help each other shift to a terminology that better represents the array of diversity that we’ve worked so hard to achieve, and continue to work so hard to sustain. I know I’ve got plenty to learn (e.g., when do I use the term “Hispanic” and when do I use the term “Latinx”?), and I’m looking forward to learning with you.
And yes, I’ll be sure to reconfigure our calculations in the future. Frankly, that is the easy part. Moreover, I’ll be sure to reconceptualize the way I think about student demographics. We’ve crossed a threshold into a new dimension of diversity within our own student body. Now it’s time for the ways that we quantify, convey, and conceptualize that diversity to catch up.
Make it a good day,