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The True Measure of Diversity

In my freshman year at college, I could count on both hands the number of fellow students of color who decided to transfer to other institutions during our first year. All the students I spoke to shared a common theme in their reasoning: not feeling like they were supported on a campus that had worked so hard to recruit them to attend. We have all extensively heard about college campuses touting their diverse class rates in order to label themselves as an “inclusive” campus. On the surface level, colleges look as if they are growing more diverse. According to the State University of New York (SUNY), over the past decade, students of color have grown from 18% to 28% overall in terms of enrollment. But, what about the percentage of these students that stayed?

According to the SUNY’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Phase One Action Plan released in February 2021, a racial gap in retention rates does exist. Students of color are retained at lower rates than their white peers. When examining the retention rates of first-year, full-time matriculated undergraduate students in Fall 2019-Fall 2020, white students had a first-year retention rate of 71%, whereas as Hispanic, American Indian, Black, and Pacific Islander students possessed retention rates of 66%, 65%, 63%, and 55%, respectively.

With the newfound focus on the intersection between higher education and racial justice, now is a better time than ever to reanalyze diversity on college campuses across the nation. If colleges are actively recruiting diverse students, how are they helping them to stay? Colleges are motivated by the idea of appearing diverse, but not much is being done to sustain this oftentimes misleading appearance. A long-term solution to the problem of institutional and higher education racial inequity begins in our college admissions process, but it does not just end there. More needs to be done to establish a safe and supportive college environment that does not isolate students of color.

Retention rates have been proven to affect graduation rates. According to SUNY’s 2021 Action Plan report, the average graduation rates at SUNY for white, Asian, and non-resident students seeking associate’s degrees are measurably higher than graduation rates for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. For 6-year baccalaureate degrees, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students have a lower graduation rate than the SUNY average, with the graduation rate for white students being 12 points higher than Black students and nearly 7 points higher than Latinx students.

When less than two-thirds of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students return to SUNY for a second year, more needs to be done to create a more inclusive campus environment. Some strategies to combat this retention inequity include: supporting funding for multicultural clubs and centers across campuses, and actively hiring diverse faculty, staff, and administrators so students can see themselves reflected in the campus body. Students of color need to feel supported in predominantly white institutions through explicit college support and commitment to maintaining real diversity. Colleges also should promote antiracism, safe spaces, and diversity training, as well as vehemently combat hate crimes and speech on campus. College administrations must be honest with themselves about their campuses’ attitudes, and local community’s attitude toward students of color on how this may affect the students’ perception of feeling welcomed on campus.

To truly demonstrate our commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion across higher education, we must examine the retention rates and implement better retention strategies for our students of color- their future depends on it.

Alyssa Carbone is a senior at the College of Oneonta, SUNY and a memeber of YI-New York’s Fall 2021 Young Advocates Program.