Researcher describes ways to increase student success

Nationally recognized researcher Brian Bridges provided creative and not necessarily costly ways to increase student success when he spoke in July in Minneapolis. Bridges described six key strategies that historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, have used to compile a compelling record with African-American students. But his ideas seem relevant to many students, regardless of race. His speech can be found at

Bridges began by explaining why it’s worth considering what HBCUs have accomplished. He pointed out that about 70 percent of their students come from low-income families. According to the “Chronicle of Higher Education,” nationally about 26 percent of four-year college or university students were from low-income families in 2008-2009.

The HBCUs enroll about 10 percent of all African-American students attending four-year institutions. They do the following:

• Produce 18 percent of all African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees.
• Produce 25 percent of all African-Americans with bachelor’s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
• Represent all of the top undergraduate institutions that send African-Americans on to earn Ph.D.s in science and engineering.
• Have graduates who demonstrate higher levels of charitable giving and political participation than comparable students.

Bridges’ suggestions seem very relevant to Minnesota, given our legislation requiring each high school student develop a personal plan for the future.

Bridges described six key strategies that HBCUs use to achieve results:

• Every student is known well by at least one faculty member. There is an expectation that each faculty member “will go above and beyond to connect with students and their families.”
• Faculty use what he calls “intrusive advising.” Faculty and staff aggressively help students develop their goals and show that an adult authority figure truly cares about them and their future.
• HBCUs promote “student engagement based on culture.” These institutions work very hard to help students develop a deep, broad understanding of their culture.
• These institutions develop “a strong sense of identity” in their students. It’s not enough to know about your culture. It’s important for students to think carefully about who they are and who they want to be.
• HBCUs encourage “the pursuit of lifelong learning, starting with enrollment at the next level.”
• “HBCU students reap the advantage of having the option to attend school primarily with students from the same race or culture.”

The last point is controversial for some people. But as Bridges pointed out, HBCUs have and continue to provide an important and valuable option for African-American students. Bridges explained that there is a huge difference between assigning students to underfunded, inferior schools, as happened in the days of segregation, and giving them options, one of which is to attend an institution at the K-12 or higher education level, such as an HBCU.

Bridges, who has worked at a variety of universities, currently serves as chief research officer of UNCF (formerly known as United Negro College Fund) and executive director of the UNCF’s Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute. He spoke to a statewide conference of Minnesota charter public schools. The Center or School Change, where I work, co-sponsored the meeting along with CliftonLarsonAllen and the Minnesota Association of Charter Public Schools.

His suggestions seem relevant to all kinds of public schools. It’s not enough to have a state policy requiring high school students to develop a plan for themselves. Students need help from people who they believe really care about them and make it a priority to assist in student plans.

In other columns, I’ve quoted young people who stress the importance of teachers’ encouragement and assistance. Great educators helped youngsters accomplish far more than those students thought possible.

As we move toward a new school year, I hope schools will use at least some of Bridges’ ideas to help more students succeed.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]