December 13, 2016


Changing how schools label nonconventional students


By Elisabeth Weems

The Atlantic’s article, “The Cost of Being First,” cited Cleveland State University’s Byron White and his argument about categorizing students as “first-generation” and “underprivileged” in October. It drew from his piece, “Beyond a Deficit View,” published by Inside Higher Ed.

White is the Vice President for University Engagement and is also the chief diversity officer at CSU. His article explained that language is important when categorizing groups of nonconventional students.
“There is a fairly consistent paradigm about what is the prototypical college student,” White said.

He described that student as being a recent high school graduate often from an affluent or suburban background.

The problem with this perception? Those who do not fit the mold are often believed to be burdensome to universities for having greater financial needs or for requiring remedial help, White said.

In his article, White writes that these nontraditional students are categorized under what he calls “the big three deficiencies.” Those are students who are part of minority groups, who come from low-income homes, or who are first-generation students whose parents did not attend college.

However, White opposes using all of those terms. Rather, he suggests referring to students with titles that do not signal a deficiency, but carry positive connotations instead.

That includes names like “rising scholars,” to give students a sense of potential instead of a feeling of lacking.
“How we characterize students and how they see themselves [are] important for our own perspectives, and I think it really does change how we interact with students,” White said.

White explained that what universities must do is to see a new “normal” student.

Rather than asking whether students are ready for college, what one should be asked is whether colleges are student-ready, White said. Ready, that is, to meet the changing demographics and needs of college students.

By 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics reported expectations of 25 and 42 percent increases in African-American and Hispanic student populations, respectively, in comparison to just a 4 percent increase in white students.

According to the report, students from these minority groups are about three times more likely to be impoverished than their white counterparts, and are significantly more likely to be the first of their families to attend college.

White said that CSU has a competitive advantage because its student body has a variety of vantage points. As the demographic of college students shifts to include more people who break the prototypical mold, CSU has adapted to better serve them.

An example of those efforts is Lift Up Vikes!, a food pantry and resource center in the Recreational Center. It gives all students access to food, but recognizes that some students are more in need than others.
Instead of treating that need as a deficit, White said, providing that service is now a normal university function.

White said that although it is beneficial to create programs intended to target specific needs, they shouldn’t be considered exceptional. Instead, he suggested those services should part of the way schools operate.
“The only line between exceptional and the norm is what we call it,” White said.


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