Researchers and practitioners use an array of methodologies to explore diverse college student experiences. However, common approaches such as comparative analysis or aggregate examinations of results can further perpetuate inequities in research, mask significant findings for specific subpopulations, and hinder diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. We offer three equity-centered methodological approaches and brief examples that can be employed to better examine diverse college student experiences.
Person-Centered Approaches—Helpful to Understand the Complexities of Identity
Person-centered approaches focus on the relationships among individuals (Murray et al., 2014), as they allow for the complexities of identity to be explored by identifying respondents who are similar to each other based on their survey responses. Taking our example institutions above, a person-centered approach would look different at each institution based on characteristics of the student population. For example, one large, public, nonresidential institution serves a sizeable population of women who are Hispanic and Latina/o, under 21 years old (first-year students) or under 25 years old (seniors), and first-generation. Such characteristics inform us that a large proportion of the student population holds multiple minoritized identities.
A cluster analysis was conducted to examine how students with different identity characteristics conveyed their sense of belonging at this institution. Cluster analyses allow researchers to explore variables of interest while grouping respondents by similarities and differences. In this case, the cluster analysis on the sense of belonging scale yielded four groups primarily made up of:
Table 1. Mean Scores of Four Clusters Based on Identity Characteristics and Selected NSSE Engagement Indicators
|Engagement Indicator||(1) |
Hispanic/Latino, FY students under age 21 and SR students under age 25, non-first-generation men
Multiracial, FY students under age 21 and SR students under age 25, first-generation women
Hispanic/Latino students over age 25, first-generation women
Hispanic/Latino, FY students under age 21 and SR students under age 25, non-first-generation women
|Sense of Belonging||40.3||41.5||39.2||43.3|
|Discussions with Diverse Others||30.1||30.5||30.9||27.9|
Note: Engagement Indicator scores range from 0 to 60.
Table 1 shows how we can gather a deeper understanding of the identity complexities of students at this institution through a cluster analysis of Engagement Indicators and sense of belonging. In the table, the data represented are the mean scores on selected Engagement Indicators for each cluster numbered above. Furthermore, each group has a slightly different sense of belonging and average engagement in different areas, such as Discussions with Diverse Others, Supportive Environment, and Student-Faculty Interaction. The results show that Cluster 4 (Hispanic/Latino, first-year students under 21 or seniors under 25, non-first-generation women) had the highest sense of belonging but were the least engaged in Discussions with Diverse Others. These results demonstrate a complex but detailed picture of how engagement differs for various student groups.
Centering Methodologies Validate Specific Populations’ Experiences
Centering methodologies focus on examining a specific population’s experiences. Survey results are frequently analyzed comparatively to understand how certain concepts are experienced by different groups. However, centering, or focusing, on a specific population in analyses can demonstrate a commitment to validate their common experiences.
For example, about 30% of respondents at a small, private not-for-profit, residential university said they have a disability that impacts their learning, working, and living activities. What’s more, a quarter of those respondents (27%) have multiple disabilities or conditions (Figure 1). Using a centering approach, stakeholders at this institution may want to further explore the educational experiences of students who report having multiple disabilities or conditions.
Figure 2 displays responses to Supportive Environment items for students with multiple disabilities or impairments.
These students feel their institution emphasizes academic support, learning support services, and interactions with peers from different backgrounds. On the other end, students with multiple disabilities or conditions feel that their institution can better emphasize helping them manage non-academic responsibilities. Using these results with a centering approach can help to identify areas for improvement for specific groups and to create intentional initiatives that increase engagement for students with multiple disabilities or impairments.
Critical Methodologies Create Space for Discussions About Social Inequities
Critical methodologies center around issues that perpetuate inequities and marginalization (Kivunja & Kuyini, 2017), situating them within the socio-historical context. In critical methodologies, the theories and frameworks emphasize a social justice lens to interrogate systemic inequities, such as Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, and feminist theories/methodologies. Although frequently associated with qualitative research, critical methodologies are gaining traction in quantitative studies to provide researchers with more resources for how to be more intentional when analyzing minoritized groups’ experiences.
Researchers often group students of color together to have a sufficient sample to compare to White student experiences. However, that approach reinforces the White student experience while demonstrating how students of color deviate from that normalized experience.
An example of where critical methodologies could be employed is examining racialized experiences at the large, public, residential university whose racial/ethnic diversity is portrayed in Figure 3 on the main page. The figure displays a racially/ethnically diverse student population, with more representation of Asian, Hispanic or Latina/o, and Black or African American students than other racial groups. Based on the characteristics of this institution, prevailing theories of student engagement that do not explicitly consider racial identity (e.g., Pike & Kuh, 2005; Tinto. 1975) may not best capture what their students experience. It may be advantageous for institutions with this amount of racial diversity to use theories and frameworks, such as Critical Race Theory and the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments framework (Museus, 2014), that are specific to understanding racially minoritized students’ experiences on college campuses. Additionally, consider that the “typical” experience at this institution is more likely to be a racially minoritized students’ experience, and one that should be considered in decision-making centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Disaggregating results by race and ethnicity is another critical approach that can help assess student engagement of minoritized groups. Researchers often group students of color together to have a sufficient sample to compare to White student experiences. However, that approach reinforces the White student experience while demonstrating how students of color deviate from that normalized experience. That approach also conflates the experiences of racially minoritized students as a monolithic experience, when we know that this is not accurate. In the case of a large, public, residential university, a comparative approach where White and People of Color’s experiences are examined would not capture the racialized experiences at this institution. For this institution, a more appropriate approach would be to use theories and frameworks that address the racialized component of student engagement and disaggregate analysis by race and ethnicity to gather a better sense of how each subgroup engages with the campus environment.
Kivunja, C., & Kuyini, A. B. (2017). Understanding and applying research paradigms in educational contexts. International Journal of Higher Education, 6(5), 26-41.
Murray, C., Lombardi, A., & Kosty, D. (2014). Profiling adjustment among postsecondary students with disabilities: A person-centered approach. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 7(1), 31.
Museus, S. D. (2014). The culturally engaging campus environments (CECE) model: A new theory of success among racially diverse college student populations. In Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 189-227). Springer, Dordrecht.
Pike, G. R., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). A typology of student engagement for American colleges and universities. Research in higher education, 46(2), 185-209.
Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of educational research, 45(1), 89-125.