Numbers Lie, but Diverse Students Populations Stories Don’t

Rodney Bates, NASPA IV-W Oklahoma Membership Representative

October 31, 2017

My colleague said to me, “I don’t know why people of color are not successful at HWIs; look at you; you made it….” I was not sure how to address my colleague, but at the time, I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. I am sure his intentions were good, but I honestly did not feel like I had succeeded at my college, a historically white institution (HWI). I posed the question to him, “Define ‘succeed’ or ‘being successful at a HWI.’” My colleague said, “well, you know… what you are, educated, you have two degrees, a career, you’re a good citizen. I mean, the goal of the University is that you walk out of here with a degree, and you have done that, so I would say that you have succeeded at making it. Plus we have offices to assist students of color and the university has made the commitment for students to achieve. Hell! You have the Multicultural office, student support services, and other areas in student affairs to give you all the assistance you need to make it if you want to.” I thought about the age-old claim, “if someone really wants to make it, they can,” which does not bother me as much as the assumption that if African Americans do fail, it’s because they are lazy. It is the assumption that someone does not have the desire to want to be successful that feels especially demeaning and dehumanizing. It centers a particular (and oppressive) definition of success instead of the actual human who the success is supposed to benefit. The question, at least to me, is: at what cost? My colleague was convinced that he was right; Black people and marginalized communities’ ability to succeed at HWIs because he knew what, and where, I came from. He was certain that the challenges I had faced further supported the notion that African Americans can succeed at a HWI, but that some choose not to. It’s tough to have those conversations with people who have no clue about being in an disadvantaged situation. I knew that being silent would only make me a contributor to the common notion that success manifests itself in measureable ways and accrues to those who frame success very narrowly. As a student affairs professional, I learned that the ways universities measure success do not account for, and cannot recognize, the fullness of Black men’s and women’s talent (Hotchkins & Dancy II, 2015).

At most institutions, student success is measured quantitatively using retention rates, persistence rates, and degree attainment (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2006). Although “student success” is not defined consistently across institutions, retention rates, persistence rates, and degree attainment are the major success metrics at most higher education institutions (Hagedorn, 2005). Scholars and practitioners continue to raise concerns, especially given the gaps between degree attainment rates for people of color compared to their white counterparts (Museus & Jayakumar, 2012). Given what we know about HWIs and the increasing enrollment of people of color, critical scholars question whether HWIs are equipped to support diverse student populations’ academic success (Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). The literature on student success is vast. Nontraditional definitions of student success include qualitative measures such as students’ sense of belonging (Strayhorn, 2012), social integration (Tinto, 2012), and sense of identity. Diverse student populations’ definitions of success may be very similar to or very different from their colleges’ and universities’ definitions of success. If colleges and universities hope to close the success gap and decrease the marginalization of students of marginalized populations, then they [students] must be a part of the conversation about student success. An understanding of marginalized students’ definitions and perceptions of student success has the potential to inform institutional efforts to close the student success gap and decrease the marginalization.

In fact, in April of 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued an influential report on the state of U.S. education, rather urgently titled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report addressed the questions “what is excellence?” and “how does mediocrity affect academic performance?” In response, Prakash and Waks published “Four Conceptions of Excellence” in hopes of deepening and clarifying public discourse about the aims of American education (Prakash & Waks, 1985). Prakash and Waks (1985) define the four conceptions as “the technical, the rational, the personal, and the social” and describe the standards of educational excellence associated with each (p. 79); these are operationalized (respectively) as mental proficiency, disciplinary initiation, self-actualization, and social responsibility. According to this hierarchical framework, mental proficiency is conceived as the lowest level standard, with each subsequent standard building on the one that precedes it (Hotchkins & Dancy, 2015). While this is a brief review of the frameworks around excellence, one must  see that there are more ways to measure success than just by numbers. For the sake of time, I want to focus on social responsibility. Often times this measure of success is more nuanced and requires more qualitative inquiry. Social responsibility extends beyond the individual to the community; it places the satisfaction of individual ends in the context of the community of ends (Prakash & Waks, 1985, p. 87). “Social responsibility couples individual satisfaction with communal uplift as a function of achieving a just society where the common good is reached due to individuals actively working to solve significant problems” (Hotchkins & Dancy II, 2015, p. 77).  While it is hard to trace the connections between one’s environment, social mobility, and well-being as a result of education, institutions of higher education still have a responsibility to measure and value this form of success. If institutions are using traditional ways of success as a way to indicate their university is successful, then universities, colleges, and other institutions of higher education (and K-12) need to expand their conceptions of success and understand, numbers lies, but Black and Brown stories do not.

Rodney Bates received his B.A. in Psychology May 2002 and M.Ed. in Education May 2008 both at University of Central Oklahoma. Rodney Bates currently works in Housing and Food Services as a Center Coordinator in Residence Life. Rodney Bates has a Ph.D. at the University of Oklahoma in Educational and Leadership Policy, where his focus is on Black Males’ experiences at Historically white Institution (HWI).  Rodney is the current Oklahoma Membership Coordinator for NASPA –IV West Region. 


Hotchkins, B. K., & Dancy II, T. E. (2015). Rethinking Excellence: Black Male Success and Academic Values in Higher Education. Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, 4(1), 73–98.

Prakash, M. S., & Waks, L. J. (1985). Four Conceptions of Excellence. Teachers College Record, 87(1), 79–101.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. University of Chicago Press.

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