Youngstown State University has struggled to recruit, retain and graduate minority students. If that sentence sounds familiar, it was the headline to a story we ran last spring. But it’s true. In 2013-14, minority retention was more than 17 percent lower than overall retention. Six-year graduation rates for minority students entering in 2008 were less than 15 percent, less than half the university-wide rate of 33.3 percent.
Efforts need to be made to improve these numbers, and the administration has said making those efforts is a priority. One avenue they could pursue is engaging students on a curricular level.
In a recent working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, two economists at Stanford looked at the impact ethnic studies courses have on students’ GPAs and attendance rates at San Francisco high schools.
The results were staggering. Assignment to the course increased ninth grade students’ attendance rates by 21 percent and GPAs by 1.4 grade points compared to students who weren’t assigned to the course.
“These surprisingly large effects … suggest that culturally relevant teaching, when implemented in a supportive, high-fidelity context can provide effective support to at-risk students,” the authors stated.
This is one study in one school district, and there are significant differences between high schools and colleges, but it suggests that if you engage students at a curricular level it will increase retention, and thus graduation.
Among YSU’s current offerings there are what could be termed ethnic studies classes in the history department and the department of philosophy and religious studies, but they are primarily upper-level classes that only students in those majors have access to.
Where ethnic studies could really make a difference is in the University’s general education requirements. A look through the various knowledge domains reveals only a few classes that qualify as ethnic studies. The two Introduction to Africana Studies courses offered this semester are at capacity, suggesting that there is enough demand to accommodate more sections. Students we’ve talked to have suggested they get something from these courses they don’t get from other courses offered at the University.
When interviewing students for an article in progress, one commented that she had been learning about white history for years, but the curriculum ignored the contribution of her people.
“How do you disregard every aspect of humanity except your own?” the student asked. “It is inhumane. You are educating people to think that the world is only me.”
YSU is currently developing a first-year-experience course with hopes that the mandatory course will improve retention rates. This is an opportune moment for the general education committee to consider incorporating an ethnic studies component to the course. That, along with a greater focus on ethnic studies classes in the social and personal awareness knowledge domain could make students feel more invested in their education during their first year or two at YSU.
This helps not only those students, but also the university as a whole. Better retention rates mean more revenue from tuition.
Offering a robust ethnic studies curriculum goes beyond mere political correctness. If the empirical study conducted at Stanford is any indication, aligning instruction with student’s cultural experiences appears to have a substantial effect on their performance.