Leadership and Strategy Leads to Colleges with High Diversity

How did Wheelock College join the ranks of colleges with high diversity? On March 7, 2010, The Boston Sunday Globe lauded Wheelock College in an editorial (Vol. 277; No. 66) for its institutional diversity, “One College Gains True Diversity.” The editorial commented favorably on the racial and ethnic composition and representation of our faculty, staff and students. We were also recognized as an institution providing access to students who were first in their families to attend college with nearly 50% of our entering classes being first-generation college going students. The editorial commented, “Wheelock proves that neither rocket science nor an undiscovered Dead Sea scroll is necessary to find the formula to achieve diversity.” In June 2012, NBCLatino, the “new voice for American Hispanics” recognized Wheelock for having increased its Hispanic students by 10% in about six years. Though it was not rocket science, nor did anyone traverse to the northwest shores of the Dead Sea to find our answer, the College was able to leverage these gains through an intentional and focused vision, leadership and strategy. Diversity at Wheelock College

Wheelock College is a private institution celebrating the 125 th anniversary of its founding. We have a public mission of improving the lives of children and families. Because of our mission, we sought to strategically address issues of college readiness, access and success for students of color. How can we have such a clear and compelling mission if we are not recruiting, retaining and graduating diverse students to be stewards of that mission? With our mission, how could we as an institution not only prepare students for a more diverse world but also be producers of and influencers in the world’s diversity?  

Diversity was both an input and an outcome of our vision and strategy. As an input, we wanted to leverage our institutional mission, history and growing diversity within our faculty, staff and administrative ranks. As an outcome, we wanted our student diversity to increase to at least 25% of our undergraduate student population. But we also wanted that student diversity to challenge and deepen our pedagogy and campus life experience. We went to the research literature and found critical factors that promote student success as illustrated by George Kuh et al in “What Matters to Student Success: A Literature Review” (2006). Kuh posits that student success is a complex arrangement influenced by social, economic, cultural and educational dynamics. These factors include a student’s background and pre-collegiate experiences, post-secondary institutional conditions that foster student success; as well as academic achievement, satisfaction and post-college performance, to name a few.

The College implemented a robust continuum of programs and services spanning early awareness and pre-collegiate programs, admissions recruitment strategies and college student success and retention efforts resulting in a substantial increase in the number of students of color ready, enrolling and graduating from the institution. Before doing so, we placed guiding questions before the College community that would be imperative to student and institutional success. These questions included:

  • What are our expectations of students?
  • What are our expectations of faculty, staff, administrators and others?
  • How does our campus support student success?
  • How can we enrich our students’ educational experiences?
  • How can we engage students in active and collaborative learning and development?
  • What data do we have to inform our efforts?
  • What is Wheelock’s value-added for students in general and students of color more specifically, to attend the College?

These questions lead to Wheelock’s vision for student success is to build an exemplary educational community characterized by: (1) a culture of accomplishment that is created and sustained at every level of the institution; (2) expectations that are communicated to students and clearly emphasize that they can and must succeed at Wheelock; and (3) an array of coordinated and institutionalized supports that sustain our expectations. Our paradigm called for us to affect our approach through pre-collegiate programs , undergraduate recruitment and retention and progression strategies . The results were impressive. Between 2006 and 2011:

  • Nearly 255% increase in applications from students of color.
  • Students of color increased from 18% to 30% of the total undergraduate student population.
  • African American student enrollment increase of 106%.
  • Latino student enrollment increase of 141%.
  • Students designating multiracial increased by 233%.
  • Asian American and Native American enrollment remained relatively constant.
  • Retention for first-year students of color moved to within 4% points of the overall first year student retention, 84% to 89%.

 We have learned quite a bit in the nearly five years of this committed strategy.

Committed leadership: this is not an approach that can be driven by a single individual. In order to organize an institutional strategy, you will need committed, engaged, sustained and vocal leadership at all levels of the institution particularly from the President.

Organizational structure and capacity: senior leadership matters in ushering change. The appointment of a chief diversity officer was integral in developing and implementing a leveraged approach to change.

Data access and utilization: data helped to articulate a compelling story for the institution and its varied constituencies. Data was also instrumental in tracking progress. Students of color are not a monolithic group so ensure that systems are in place that allow for disaggregated data to be collected, analyzed and reported.

Financial aid leveraging: use data to better understand how to use our financial aid as a tool to address student need and better promote student retention.

Communication strategy: develop appropriate mechanisms to effectively communicate diversity goals, challenges and successes for both internal and external audiences.

Continuum of programs, supports and services: develop program, supports and services that are not ad hoc and disparate but that align in a developmental and progressive manner; pay attention to those periods throughout the student experience that are points of transition such as between high school graduation and matriculation, first semester to second semester, and first-year to second year.

Value-added collaborations and partnerships: establish authentic partnerships and collaborations with schools, community-based organizations and other organizations that are focused on youth development or college and career-readiness. You become a trusted partner and students, parents and families served by these organizations have a better familiarity of the college even before the formal college admissions process begins.

Leverage strategy to achieve multiple goals: institutional diversity can be a strategy unto itself but should also be seen as a way to bolster other macro or micro institutional goals. For example, increasing student diversity can obviously increase overall enrollment goals but can also support goals towards increasing academic excellence and rigor.

Rocket scientists and Dead Sea Scroll excavators we may not be. But determined leaders and strategists we are. We do not discount the challenges of implementing institutional diversity strategies. But we are mindful that doing so is a process and a journey, not an event.

Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook Dr. Adrian K. Haugabrook  is Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success and Chief Diversity Officer at Wheelock College. Follow him on Twitter at @AKHaugabrook.