The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis has provided funding and counseling to thousands of Missouri students in our 95-year history. In recent decades, we’ve helped about 600 low- and moderate-income students each year.
We have heard for many years from our recipients, many of whom are racial minorities, about disturbing incidents and interactions on many of our state’s college campuses, including, but not limited to, a school that has recently been in the news: our state’s flagship, the University of Missouri. In fact, racism on our college campuses has been something of an open secret for many years among those of us who work with Missouri students.
Racism in higher education doesn’t always involve overt name-calling or physical threats. It also takes the form of a cold shoulder, an unwillingness to do more than the minimum (if that) to help a student in need, or stingy financial aid policies that dramatically underfund students or bury them in debt.
Many of our students faced with these kinds of barriers at their campuses have tried to transfer to friendlier campuses. But even voting with their feet can set them back, since transferring results in lost credits, longer time to degree completion, and increased debt.
Then, when our students struggle or drop out, they are blamed for the failure by those who subscribe to an open-market, buyer-beware, pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps attitude.
As a result of our experience in counseling thousands of well-qualified, smart Missouri college students, we advise students of any color to:
- Avoid locations that increase isolation because they are geographically remote or because they do not enroll many students of color.
- Know that how you are treated in admissions is a preview of how you might expect to be treated on campus. Admissions is “sales,” so if the people in that role are evasive or unkind it’s not a good sign.
- Ask plenty of questions and expect complete and honest answers.
- Inventory mental health services on campus and know how to get help.
- Make sure there are student organizations identified for students of color and that the campus is amenable to creating new opportunities.
- Prepare a careful financial plan to minimize economic challenges.
- Be doubly careful about financial planning if the first college did not “fit” and you plan on transferring. Before you make a decision, request a credit and degree audit and verify financial aid offers.
- Know that you have a right not to be subjected to racial harassment and institutions have a legal responsibility to take action against it.
- Pay it forward by helping other students and applicants identify people and organizations that have been helpful, and create a community of success.
Unfortunately, we have not found any college campus to be entirely immune from racism. However, we have learned that students of all colors can thrive at institutions with strong student support services promoting persistence toward degree completion; a staff that is representative of the students served in race and background; and financial aid packages that promote affordability.
It’s up to the leadership of Mizzou—and every other college—to provide safe, nurturing, and affordable educational opportunities to all our students.
The authors are from the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, where Elam works as student adviser, Martinez is immigrant student adviser, and Steinkamp is advising director.