How you can help underrepresented students “Aim Higher”

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I’ve given many presentations to educators, especially concerning students who are commonly labeled “underrepresented.” I like to work the crowd when I speak, and there’s a theoretical situation I often present to them. The response is always interesting.

“You have an Asian student, a Hispanic student, and an African American student,” I propose. Then I ask, “Which one is best at math?”

I often get an answer related to cultural norms or statistics, but the answer is usually, “the Asian student.”

Then I ask whether it could also be because the Asian student is expected to be good at math.


The power of positive thinking? Dreams are destiny? That might be one way to look at it, but having high expectations for students can go a long way toward convincing them to do well in school and achieve college readiness. Those expectations are especially important when we talk about educating underrepresented students—those for whom race, ethnicity, income, or parental education status often affect their access to high-quality college and career opportunities and resources. This is a large population, especially considering that the country is rapidly moving to a majority-minority society.

The number of underrepresented students tested by ACT has increased dramatically—including Hispanic students by 44 percent and African American students by 23 percent in the last five years. The good news is, although our pool of underrepresented students has expanded, their overall academic achievements have remained steady or even increased, including more Hispanic students reaching ACT College Readiness Benchmarks compared to a year ago.

But we still have more work to do. This is especially true of students from low-income families. ACT’s Condition of College & Career Readiness 2016 report identifies that students with a family income of $80,000 or more saw average score increases, while students whose families are below that income level saw score decreases. This is troubling, especially as income gaps continue to grow.

Most students want to continue their education after high school. An impressive 84 percent of 2016 ACT-tested students aspired to earning a postsecondary degree.

So, how do we help them achieve it? To start, there are three barriers we can help break down for these students:

  • The language barrier—Family involvement in students’ education is critical to their academic success. But what happens when English is not the parents’ first language? How can those parents understand and explain terms like “FAFSA”? We must do more to engage these parents early, and in ways they can understand, so they can be effective advocates for their children’s education.
  • The access barrier—Taking a college readiness assessment like the ACT can put students in touch with colleges. However, many underrepresented students wait until their senior year to take the test, limiting their time to explore colleges. We can jump-start that. For example, ACT’s “Get Your Name in the Game” initiative connects colleges with traditionally underrepresented students at no cost to either party. This puts a spotlight on students and colleges who otherwise might not have been aware of each other.
  • The parental education barrierOur research shows that many first-generation students (the first in their family to go to college) are often at a disadvantage in terms of their academic readiness for college. We must pay special attention to improving first-generation students’ college readiness.

This is achievable. We can arm our students (and their families) with the knowledge that everyone can earn a college degree, but we also must give them the expectation and the confidence to pursue that education and to make their dreams a reality.

ACT and our partners at Univision will discuss how educators can help underrepresented learners aim higher during a FREE webinar on Feb. 28. The details are below:

What: FREE webinar: “How You Can Help Underrepresented Students ‘Aim Higher’”

When: Tuesday, Feb. 28, Noon ET / 9 a.m. PT

Presenters: Juan Garcia, senior director, ACT Center for Equity in Learning; Adriana Flores-Ragade, partnerships director, social impact, Fusion Media Network and Univision

Register here