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Leveraging Students’ Community Cultural Wealth: Moving from Deficit to Asset-Based Approaches

The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent protests against racism are inflection points for higher education. As students continue to face the barriers and challenges of remote/online learning, this has thrust universities to think of alternative ways to support students through the degree completion pathway. With the barriers and challenges students are now facing, they can no longer be expected to access university resources, programs, opportunities, thus forcing higher education to find new ways to aid students. 

Traditionally, universities have taken deficit-based approaches to help address the needs of students, specifically underrepresented students. This approach is not an appropriate basis for strategies designed for student success, thus signaling that being underrepresented, first-generation, or low-income are indicators of potential failure.  Universities need a new language that releases higher education from using labels such as disadvantaged, at-risk, and vulnerable to depict minority, low-income, and first-generation students.  We are at a pivotal moment in history. We must ask ourselves—how can institutions move away from the deficit lens approach to an asset-based approach to ensure equitable student outcomes?

There’s an implicit assumption that underrepresented students lack the cultural capital required for social and economic mobility; therefore, higher education must provide opportunities to earn this capital (Yosso, 2005). Yet, as noted by Yosso (2005), have challenged these students already possess community cultural wealth. Students of color bring various forms of capital, including aspirational, navigational, social, linguistic, and resistant (See Figure 1).  

Yosso’s work encourages us to shift our traditional thinking to provide equitable opportunities for all students.

Figure 1: Community Cultural Wealth Theory; Yosso (2005)

Source: San Francisco State University

The Coalition of Urban Serving Universities (USU) held a session titled Leveraging Students’ Community Cultural Wealth: Moving from Deficit to Asset-Based Approaches to Student Success, to begin this conversation with attendees.  Focusing on Community Cultural Wealth (CCW), a theoretical framework to guide equity-based work, our speaker, Dr. Rachel Emas, Assistant Teaching Professor and Director at Rutgers-Newark, provided examples of how we see the forms of capital play out on the campuses (Yosso, 2005).

Following Dr. Emas’s high-level overview of the CCW theory, participants heard from a recently graduated student and a current student, –Diana Negron and Zachary Curinga–, about how they harnessed multiple forms of capital to guide them through their collegiate journey. Attendees had the chance to identify ways to either support or hinder students’ success with their current practices and policies. After universities had an opportunity to share deficit framing practices and policies, universities had to use an anti-deficit approach to student success, and community engagement by identifying and leveraging assets students bring to the degree completion journey.

This session allowed attendees to begin to reexamine their mindset by bridging the CCW theory and student voices. As we advance student success efforts, higher education leaders must take steps to undo long-standing barriers, accentuated due to the remote/online learning, by focusing on assets and not deficits of communities of color and low-income students.  Some closing questions universities should consider as they revisit their policies and practices:

  1. What are the experiences of our target population students and what data do we have to support our claims?

  2. Where have deficit mindsets impacted our advising policies, structures and/or culture?

  3. How do our policies, structures and culture contribute to inequitable outcomes for our underrepresented students?

  4. What units, or specific individuals on campus (leaders), need to be “at the table” in order to move the needle on organizational change for equity? How will I get them to the table?

This post was written jointly by Andrea Rodriguez and Christel Perkins, Ed.D.

Header IStock Imager Credit: wildpixel


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