Slow Academic Progress Among Minority Students is an American Dilemma

by Antonio Jackson – Dean of Arts and Humanities at Fayetteville Technical Community College / Mar 31, 2020

A question I often ask myself and others is, “What is hindering the academic progress of minoritized students?” I’ve often heard responses that blame the students for the slow progress or the lack of institutional resources. However, the opportunity gaps that slow down the degree attainment of minoritized students plague all postsecondary institutions, and this phenomenon has implications that are much bigger than the individuals who are alienated from education and occupational success.

These opportunity gaps hinder both the economic development of the communities these students belong to and the entire nation. The adage “every part supplies the whole” is a structural-functionalist perspective that has vacated our country. When a segment of any society lacks the foundation to build a productive and stable life, the economic progress of communities and the country suffers as a whole. As expressed by Lotkowski, Robbins, and Noeth (2004), a college education is key to developing a prepared workforce and a better quality of life for citizens.

I've found the most critical factors that hinder the progress of minoritized students are non-academic ones.

While serving students over the years in my profession, I’ve found the most critical factors that hinder the progress of minoritized students are non-academic ones. According to Sommerfeld (2011), a few of the non-academic factors that contribute to college success are positive self-concept regarding academics, realistic self-appraisal, long-term goal-setting, social support, leadership, and knowledge acquired about a field. Students who can achieve success in college courses but lack academic self-confidence, academic goals, institutional commitment, and social support may still be at risk of attrition (Lotkowski, Robbins, & Noeth 2004).

To address many of the non-academic factors that hinder the academic success of minoritized students, I have worked with an interdisciplinary team composed of curriculum and student support staff to develop learning communities that focus on uniting students and providing a structure that aids them in developing life skills, goal-setting, self-awareness, connections with faculty and staff, and academic self-efficacy.

Additionally, this program has facilitated minoritized students’ participation in regional and national leadership conferences, visits to major four-year colleges and universities, and trips to seminars. These activities are designed to address barriers related to underrepresented students.

The general education programs that I oversee are engaged in a paradigm shift to transition from an entirely content- and subject-driven focus to emphasizing the skill-based competencies that are important in the workplace. This shift will help contextualize the learning experience in a manner that underrepresented students can relate to, thus allowing them to better make logical connections between the discipline content and their academic and career goals. Constructing programs and services that allow students to internalize the experience in a way that transmits into skills that can then be used to address the academic and non-academic factors that hinder success are critical. 

If colleges are going to improve the success of marginalized students, addressing non-academic factors is paramount. In addition to assessing students’ academic preparedness, colleges should gather data on their non-academic and personal attributes and then tailor support services to best serve them (Fowler & Boylan 2010). Improving the American dilemma through higher education will require a greater focus on marginalized students and the non-academic factors that hinder them from earning a postsecondary credential.


Fowler, P. R., & Boylan, H. R. (2010). Increasing Student Success and Retention: A Multidimensional Approach. Journal of Developmental Education, 34.

Lotkowski, V.A., Robbins, S. B., & Noeth, R. J. (2004). The role of academic and non-academic factors in improving college retention: ACT policy report

Sommerfeld, A. (2011). Recasting Non-cognitive Factors in College Readiness as What They Are: Non-Academic Factors, Journal of College Admission, 213.

Antonio Jackson is an Engaging Excellence in Equity Fellow who has participated in convenings designed to identify culturally responsive practices and further support-building evidence and capacity for this work. Learn more about this project.