ICYMI: Takeaways From the (Mis)Understanding Students Guide

Published: May 27, 2021

The recently released (Mis)Understanding Students Guide highlights trends and gaps in the field for understanding students who hold intersecting socialized and racialized identities. Informed by insights from practitioners, researchers, and administrators in higher education – mostly from the student affairs profession – the guide synthesizes perspectives from those who interact with students groups in a variety of different spaces. The guide serves as a high-level resource for senior leaders looking to identify effective principles for understanding students, as well as use alongside a tactical guidebook released by Achieving the Dream, called Knowing Our Students: Understanding & Designing for Success.

Both guides were created through the Advising Success Network (ASN), a dynamic network of five organizations partnering to engage institutions in holistic advising redesign to advance success for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific Islander students and students from low-income backgrounds. The ASN is coordinated by NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and includes Achieving the Dream, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, EDUCAUSE, NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising, and the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. The network believes advising should be sustained, strategic, integrated, proactive, and personalized, which requires each institution to have a deep understanding of their student populations.

Updating Our Understanding of Intersectionality

Based on interviews with leaders across many of NASPA’s Knowledge Communities –which are member-driven volunteer networks that support community curated resources to advance key higher education issues – the guide was developed to respond to common microaggressions[1] student subpopulations face in college and the need to update institutional knowledge about students’ individual lived experiences. A consistent takeaway echoed across interviews is that no student subpopulation or identity group – across race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, social class, first-generation status, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, immigration and documentation status, veteran status, or involvement with the prison/carceral system – is a monolith. Institutions should take an intersectional lens to designing policies, programs, and processes that support multiple dimensions of student wellbeing.

There is a Need to Reframe Our Language and Conceptions about Students to become Student-Ready

Over the past 15 years, our understanding of how to support students has evolved rapidly. When national discussions around a student success agenda were defined and led national organizations and states to  set completion and retention goals (that led to performance-based funding in many states), we tended to center White students as the norm and consider ways to close completion gaps. This movement led to disaggregation of student data and ways of understanding and thinking about how to support subpopulations of students. More recently, we have come to understanding more about the intersection of student identities and the inherent equity concerns of claiming consistent, monolithic, experiences by student group.

While institutions seek to become student-ready[2] and have designed programs intentionally designed for student sub-populations, deficit framing of students persists. Peña, Bensimon, and Colya (2006) share that, “[f]rom a deficit standpoint, unequal outcomes are attributed to the personal characteristics of the students who experience them.”[3] This framing appears throughout language and processes that (frequently unintentionally) blame students for not taking advantage of institutional resources. We suggest an approach to (re)designing from a local and contextualized understanding of the experiences and knowledge that students bring. Students come to an institution with a unique mix of privileged and marginalized identities that can intersect with or compound each other in different ways, and while some aspects of a student’s identity are central and unchanging; others may shift over time and during key transition periods in life. This guide suggests that we should not define students by the challenges they face, and that we should affirm, rather than dismiss, differences in student identity, worldviews, and cultural values.

The guide offers a number of recommendations and reflection questions for institutional leaders, related to:

  • Recognizing the implications of institutional-specific contexts, histories, and climates
  • Becoming aware of common microaggressions that marginalize and harm students
  • Utilizing self-assessment and user design tools to develop student-centered processes and systems

This guide was written at a particular moment in time, and we are sure there is more to learn. In alignment with the guide’s call to continuously update knowledge, NASPA intends to update the guide periodically to address limitations, be accountable for any misrepresentations, respond to feedback, and integrate learnings from new resources. We welcome your input and hope that you find some useful information. Other resources from the Advising Success Network can be accessed at https://www.advisingsuccessnetwork.org

[1]Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, defines microaggressions as “the everyday, subtle, intentional – and oftentimes unintentional – interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups.” Limbong, A.  (2020). “Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How To Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away”. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/06/08/872371063/microaggressions-are-a-big-deal-how-to-talk-them-out-and-when-to-walk-away#:~:text=Kevin%20Nadal%3A%20Microaggressions%20are%20defined,bias%20toward%20historically%20marginalized%20groups.

[2] McNair, T. B. (2016). Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success. Association of American Colleges & Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/publications/becoming-student-ready-college-new-culture-leadership-student

[3] Peña, E.V., Bensimonm E.M., and Colyam J. (2006). Contextual Problem Defining: Learning to Think and Act. Liberal Education, 92(2). Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ744031.pdf