College graduation rates for historically underrepresented students hover around 30%, and just one-third of these graduates report having a job upon graduation, according to The Opportunity Network. These staggering statistics are the crux of OppNet, a nonprofit organization in New York City founded in 2003 as a “direct response to the inequitable structures of access, college opportunity, and professional mobility that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income communities.”
We spoke with AiLun Ku, President and CEO of The Opportunity Network, about ways colleges and universities can support and promote success for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students; what students of color should look for while searching for their best-fit colleges; how underrepresented students can pay for their education and find success after graduation; and more. Read the first part of our Q&A series below.
On the college search
What should students of color specifically be looking for in colleges to support their needs and goals?
In addition to looking for overall academic, social, cultural, and financial fit in a college, BIPOC students should research the representation across bodies of administration, faculty, and leadership. Also research local alumni chapters and see what profiles of alumni are still most engaged with their alma mater. These pieces of data will help BIPOC students better understand the type of support networks they’ll be able to build once they land on campus. These support networks will help them persist through college—and likely last for the rest of their lives.
On campus support and resources
What are the most important things a college can focus on to ensure Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and other students of color feel supported at their school?
One of the most important things predominantly white colleges can do to support BIPOC students is to not treat or advertise diversity as an amenity but as an active pursuit and core value. When colleges demonstrate the effort it takes to achieve ever-increasing levels of representation and diversity across different forms of identity, it shows prospective and current BIPOC students there’s an institutional investment in diversity. It shows BIPOC students that their identities are assets that add value to college campuses and they, too, get to benefit from diversity—and not just be contributors to that status.
I’ve heard too many stories of BIPOC students attending “diversity weekends” as prospective students, falling in love with a community and matriculation, only to never experience that community again until they’re asked to help recruit [new students] during the following year’s diversity weekend. BIPOC students should be afforded the spaces and resources to celebrate and be celebrated throughout the academic year to enrich their college campuses.
On college costs and financial aid
How can students from underrepresented communities and low-income families prepare financially for all the costs of college? What specific scholarship, grant, and financial aid opportunities are available?
Financially planning for college should absolutely be a family activity and ought to start as early as possible. It can be complex and overwhelming when you think about the obvious direct costs (such as tuition, room and board, dining, and fees) to the incidental costs (such as travel to and from campus, dorm room supplies, books, a computer, and toiletries). Additionally, federal loans can feel intimidating when trying to understand the terms of those loans. At The Opportunity Network, we have a team of staff and financial aid advisors who work individually with our Fellows and their families. We realize the unfortunate truth that this type of resource isn’t available to students everywhere. We are big fans of the resources and tools developed by uAspire, Better Make Room, and Scholly. Here are a few universal tips in navigating financial planning for college:
- Have open and honest conversations with your family about what qualifies as affordable for you and your financial circumstances. Get on the same page and make no assumptions.
- Once you get a financial aid package from a college that has accepted you, advocate and inquire about any adjustments that might make the package more attractive and affordable for you.
- If there’s an administrator that isn’t helpful or taking your concerns seriously when you call the financial aid office, request another financial aid administrator. Sometimes, finding the right person on the other line will make all the difference in getting the support you need.
- Always be 100% clear before you sign on any dotted line. Leave no question unanswered and no potential money behind.
On helping other students after graduation
What can students of color do after they graduate to support other students of color about to embark on their own college journeys?
Share their stories—the good stuff, the great stuff, and the tough stuff. BIPOC graduates have the closest proximity to what incoming BIPOC students are experiencing and going through, so they can offer a uniquely helpful lens to navigate challenges on campus. BIPOC graduates are also life-affirming examples that life after college is possible and achievable.
Our next Q&A with AiLun will cover internship and career prep for students of color, including types of training and internship experiences that address cultural differences in a meaningful way and set the stage for career success. To learn more about The Opportunity Network and its mission, please visit opportunitynetwork.org.
Looking for colleges that embrace diversity and offer extensive resources for students of color? CollegeXpress is a great place to start your search!