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How Students of Color Can Beat Barriers to Education

Oct 31, 2019

The racial makeup of higher education is changing—for the better. Students of color earned 31.5 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States in 2016, according to a 2019 American Council on Education (ACE) report. ACE also notes that between 1996 and 2016, undergraduate enrollment of nonwhite students rose from 29.6 percent to 45.2 percent, and graduate enrollment of nonwhite students increased from 20.8 percent to 32 percent. These figures indicate that, slowly but surely, higher education is becoming more inclusive and that students of color are overcoming systemic barriers to education.

Battling educational challenges.

Yet despite the progress, students of color still face many educational hurdles. Students of color still don't complete higher-ed degrees at the same rate as white students. According to ACE, nearly 72 percent of Latinx students and 57.3 percent of black students enrolled in a degree program at a private nonprofit four-year institution completed within six years, compared with 81.9 percent of white students. At public four-year institutions, the six-year completion rates were 71.1 percent for white students, 55.7 percent for Latinx students, and 46 percent for black students.

In a 2019 Higher Education Studies article about challenges to persistence, retention, and graduation for students of color, researchers noted that discussions of disparate completion rates over the past two decades have generally focused on the achievement gap, as measured by standardized test scores and other metrics. Opportunity gaps—such as peer group and educator assumptions about racial inferiority and lower academic ability, insufficient income, and lack of access to resources that prepare students for college and careers—received less attention. Nonetheless, all of these conditions combine to create serious educational barriers for students of color.

To increase the diversity of their graduates, some schools are deploying a variety of strategies to remove the stumbling blocks for students of color, addressing academic standards alongside systemic racism, financial aid, and access to resources.

Breaking barriers.

Some schools encourage students of color to work with organizations that endeavor to eliminate the barriers to education and smooth the pathway for students of color. Here are two organizations with that mission.


INROADS tackles the challenges that many students of color face by providing access to financial resources and work experience through paid internships and offering pre-college support to bolster academic success. The organization was founded in 1970 to increase ethnic diversity in corporate management in the United States. Full-time undergraduates who major in business, finance, or accounting are eligible to apply for INROADS internships.

INROADS College Links is open to high school students in select cities. The program supports career exploration, college entrance, and retention, and it offers access to scholarship opportunities.

SEO scholars.

Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) is an organization founded in 1963 to assist students in underserved and underrepresented communities. SEO Scholars is a free eight-year academic program that helps low-income public high school students enter and complete college.

SEO Scholars attend college-readiness workshops that cover time management, relationship-building, effective study habits, and more. Students receive one-on-one academic, personal, and career counseling throughout their college years. The organization says that 100 percent of SEO Scholars get into four-year colleges and universities—and that 90 percent of them graduate.

Scholarship programs for students of color.

Cost is the biggest barrier between students of color and higher education. Scholarships and other financial aid can make college more affordable, and a number of opportunities are available to students of color.

  • AICPA Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students. This scholarship, funded by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Foundation (AICPA), provides up to $5,000 each academic year. It's one of the AICPA's numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives.

  • The Lagrant Foundation Scholarship. This $2,500 scholarship is available to African-American/Black, Asian-American/Pacific Islander, Latinx, or Native American/Alaska Native undergraduates. Recipients must be pursuing a degree in advertising, marketing, public relations, or a related field.

  • Institution-based scholarship programs. Colleges and universities often have their own scholarship programs. For example, the Back to School Scholarship from Western Governors University awards up to $2,000—$500 per term, for up to four terms—to new students in business, IT, education, or healthcare.

How competency-based education helps.

Competency-based education also boosts retention rates and reduces college costs. With this education model, students earn credentials when they demonstrate a mastery of the knowledge and skills their academic programs require instead of charting academic progress based on a set length of study.

Interest in competency-based programs in higher education is growing, according to the Competency-Based Education Network. By enabling students to learn as quickly as they are able—and, at some institutions, pay as they go—competency-based online education programs offer students flexibility and affordability, which can greatly improve their chances of completing their degrees. Because students of color face disproportionate economic disparity compared to their white classmates and endure systemic barriers that affect their academics, they can have greater educational success with this kind of program.

Innovative learning models, financial assistance, student support programs, internship opportunities, and other initiatives are helping students of color overcome barriers to education. They're part of a multipronged effort to ensure that college education and the career fields where these students are underrepresented can become more diverse and inclusive.

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