Academic Advising Resources



African American Students in Higher Education
by C. Harrell

Historically the purpose of higher education has been to prepare individuals to contribute to society in ways such as assisting with solving societal problems; this is the focus of a successful education system (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).  Today, institutions of higher education define success through high retention and graduation rates, and minority groups have historically struggled to be successful in these categories (Berger, J.B. , Ramirez, G.B., & Lyon, S.C 2012).  One minority group, African Americans, has struggled nation-wide with low persistence, retention, and graduation rates compared to other groups, although enrollment in degree-granting institutions seems to be improving (Cuyjet, 2006; Drake & Forester, 2003; Drake & Osborne, 2007; Perna & Jones, 2013).

The enrollment of African American students ages 18–24 increased from 40% to 43% between 2006 and 2010 (Ross & Kena, 2012, p. xi).  Barker (2011) noted that when "combining both bachelor's and graduate degree programs and enrollments in two-year community colleges, there are now more than 2 million African-Americans enrolled in higher education in the United States” (para. 3). Although the enrollment of African American students has improved  from the 2006 figures, it is equally important that the number of African American students graduating remain high.  According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education (2006) 40% of African Americans graduate within 5 years compared to 60%  of Caucasian students that graduate within that same timeframe (Horn & Carrol, 2006).  This information is important because the trends in the U.S. and the global economy require that employees possess a certain skill set to impact the changing society (Bogue & Aper, 2000, p. 18).  African Americans with a four-year degree have developed critical skills, are more financially successful, and have a much higher income (Barker, 2011).   

Where the goal is to maintain and increase the numbers of African-American students completing college degrees, those who work with these students must know the factors that lead to their success. Current theories, advising styles, and application based practices provide insight about how advisors can proactively address this issue. 

Research and Theory Impacting Advising Practices
It is important to consider how advisors can incorporate theoretical information into their advising practice and apply successful advising strategies in their daily interactions with African American students (Adams, 2012; Thomas & Hixenbaugh, 2006).  Gardner (2011) and Kuh (2008b) highlight best practices and high impact practices for an effective first-year experience, which include that advisors help students feel connected to an institution from the first semester by connecting students with high impact campus resources and activities.  This begins with advisors being aware of factors that increase enrollment, providing support, and assisting with graduation for this student group so they can be active members of society.  

Kuh (2015), in a presentation at the NACADA International Conference, provided ways that advisors can use theoretical information in the day-to-day interactions with students by teaching students to reflect, integrate, and apply.  In the advising session, advisors must be purposeful in teaching students how to reflect on their involvement, personal development, and cultural development inside and outside the classroom. Students are also successful when they integrate information from college to be personally relevant by applying this learned information to their own worldview (Kuh, 2015). Advisors may use these tools of reflection, integration, and application to support the success of African American students. 

According to current research some of the factors that influence the academic success of African American students include campus involvement, self-efficacy, and cultural awareness (Grier-Reed, 2013; Thomas, Wolters, Horn, & Kennedy, 2014).  Some specific psychological and student development theories provide insight regarding these factors that impact African American student success in higher education. Astin’s (1984) theory of student involvement, Badura’s (1986) concept of self-efficacy, Cross’s (1995) theory of nigrescence, and Tinto's (1993) theory of dimensions of institutional action all highlight the benefits of participation in programs which include advising and mentoring activities.  The theory of student involvement indicates that student success is influenced by community development inside and outside of the classroom (Astin, 1984). Self-efficacy focuses on the importance of the student’s belief in his or her ability to be successful (Bandura, 1986). The theory of nigrescence provides an explanation of various stages of African American identity development (Cross, 1995).  Dimensions of institutional action emphasizes the integration into formal and informal academic and social systems (Tinto, 1993). 

These theories can be useful for advisors in numerous ways.  Advisors can apply the theory of involvement by introducing campus resources or high impact activities during the advising session (Kuh, 2008b; Pea, 2014). The theory of nigrescence can be applied by promoting self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) through offering support and encouragement, providing ways to overcome personal and academic challenges within the institution, and confirming a student’s cultural heritage within the education community (Pea, 2014).  An advisor can help enhance a student’s cultural heritage by connecting students to community cultural activities such as African American clubs, cultural awareness months, and national organizations that promote issues of cultural awareness in its mission. The theory of dimensions of institutional action can be applied by implementing regular appointments with students from the beginning of enrollment through graduation, appointments that include education about campus processes.  In a qualitative case study interview about African American student success (Harrell, 2008), an African American student participant comments about the benefits of applying theory to practice and the importance of campus connections.

[It] helped in terms of cultural development and in terms of making me feel like I’m adding another area of development to school. Knowing there’s a group of people in school that, for the most part, feel a lot like I do at times helps. You feel like a minority, and it helps knowing that you are not alone. The Black Graduate Student Association also helped to make me feel like there are other people around [who] have similar challenges (“Caleb,” personal communication, May 16, 2006).

Caleb alluded to the importance of not feeling alone; advisors during each appointment can revisit and affirm ways that an African American student has been involved and connected with the institution socially and academically.

Proactive Advising and Predictive Analytics
To reach African American students, the use of the intrusive or proactive advising approach often is effective (Denley, 2014; Glennen & Baxley, 1985; Pea, 2014). This method of advising is designed to increase the probability of student success by approaching students before situations develop and then educate students on all options. Glennen and Baxley (1985) show that a proactive advising approach can reduce attrition and increase enrollment; this approach lays a foundation for advisors charged with providing services for students to assist with retention as well as the student experience at higher education institutions.  Proactive advising involves deliberate intervention to enhance student motivation. Proactive advisors reach out to African American students and show interest and involvement with these students. Proactive advising was implemented through the use of mandatory appointments throughout the semester based on academic preparedness, testing, structured course options, supplemental education, and goal setting—these implementations increased enrollment, decrease attrition, and improved retention rates (Glennen & Baxley, 1985). 

Predictive analytics is commonly used in business to predict outcomes about future spending trends by looking for meaningful behaviors and patterns within data (Larose, D. & Larose, C., 2015; Jindal & Borah2015). These practices transition to higher education where predictive analytics is one tool that can be used by proactive advisors to reach students. Predictive analytics involves using technology to gather “data to improve retention and increase graduation rates” (Education Advisory Board, 2014, para. 2). It includes reviewing patterns to define “goal-directed practices for ensuring organizational success at all levels” Jindal & Borah, 2015, p. 24). The data also provides the advisor the opportunity to frame questions to help African American students become knowledgeable about the university structure and resources that they may be unaware is available to them. Topic question based on information available through analytics may include high success courses, tutor usage, and average graduation grade point average.  Predictive analytics can be useful to identify students who are struggling academically and make detailed suggestions to connect them to appropriate resources to predict positive future outcomes (Denley, 2014).

The Importance of Cultural Competency
Advisors, in collaboration with their departments and institutions, should have a working understanding of high impact support resources that include cultural, holistic, or values-affirming practices (Kuh, 2008b; Pea, 2014; Walker & Dixon, 2002).  In short, academic advisors must be culturally competent if they are to help African American students (Dreasher, 2014).

Cultural competence begins with being aware of one’s own identity and how one’s personal perspective may impact those from other cultural backgrounds. This process includes understanding and reflecting on one’s beliefs, practices, and identity development in order to consider how this worldview may influence student interactions (How­ard, 2006; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).

Welcoming Environments
Creating welcoming environments in the advising appointment and connecting students to academic, social, and financial resources increases the retention of African American students (Arredondo, 1996; Jones, 2001; Scott, 2014).  A welcoming environment is important because African American students “often do not have the advice system that surrounds a student whose parents or other relatives who have been to college” (Denley, 2014, p. 61). A welcoming environment includes assisting with breaking down institutional barriers for students navigating through the university system (Arredondo, 1996).  This includes introducing students to supportive minority and non-minority groups through clubs and organizations, connecting students to encouraging faculty for possible internships and research opportunities, implementing regular advising appointments, and reinforcing the importance of building these support systems within the institution. 

Advising strategies that are specifically beneficial in increasing African American student retention include utilizing a proactive advising approach, establishing consistent appointments to develop supportive connections within the institution, providing available cultural-specific campus resources, connecting students to high impact activities, supporting self-confidence/self-efficacy, assisting with clarification of life objectives, and being a supportive advisor. These strategies assist African American students in improving their skills and developing a connection to the institution (Glennen & Baxley, 1985; Kuh, 2008b; Pea, 2014; Seidman, 2005). 

Understanding the historical purpose of higher education and the current trends for African American students within higher education, highlights the impact that advisors potentially can have on supporting the enrollment and graduation of African American students from college.  When advisors use theory and research, they can systematically apply engagement strategies that support African American students as they work toward graduation. Proactive academic advisors have the opportunity to create better educational experiences for these students. Culturally competent advisors align their advising practice with the foundational purpose of education and thus have a greater impact on the future of our society. Based on the previous research discussed, advisors have made an impact over the past few years, but more progress is needed to accomplish the desired purpose of higher education for our society. 


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Adams, C. (2012, October 12). College persistence linked to rigorous courses and academic advising [blog post]. Retrieved from

Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25, 297-308.

Berger, J.B. , Ramirez, G.B., & Lyon, S.C (2012). Past to present: a historical look at retention. In A. Seidman (Ed.), College student retention: Formula for student success (1-29). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Barker, C. J. (2011, August 11–August 17). Black graduation rates on rise. New York Amsterdam News, pp. E1.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bogue, G., & Aper, J. (2000). Exploring the heritage of American higher education: The evolution of philosophy and policy. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (2003). The American community college (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cross, W. E., Jr. (1995). The psychology of nigrescence: Revising the cross model. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.). Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 93-122). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cuyjet, M. J. (2006). African American men in college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Denley, T. (2014). How predictive analytics and choice architecture can improve student success. Research & Practice in Assessment, 9, 61. Retrieved from

Drake, T. M., & Forester, C. A. (2003). Arizona minority student success report (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED482807). Retrieved from recordDetail?accno=ED482807

Drake, T. M., & Osborne, N. L. (2007). Minority student report 2007.  Retrieved from

Dreasher, L. M. (2014). Cultural competence in academic advising: Skills for working effectively across cultures [pocket guide]. Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Gardner, J. N.  (2001). Focusing on the first-year student. AGB Priorities, No. 17. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Glennen, R., & Baxley, D. M. (1985). Reduction of attrition through intrusive advising. NASPA Journal, 22(3), 10-14.

Grier-Reed, T. (2013). The African American student network: An informal networking group as a therapeutic intervention for black college students on a predominantly white campus. Journal of Black Psychology, 39(2), 169-184.

Harrell, C. A. (2008). Minority student success: A case study of the influence of spirituality on African-American student retention (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest. (3338399)

Horn, L., Carroll, C.D. (2006). We can't teach what we don't know: White teachers,multiracial schools (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Howard, G. R. (2006). We can’t teach what we don’t know: White teachers,  multiracial schools (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Jones, L. (2001). Retaining African Americans in higher education. Challenging paradigms for retaining student, faculty, and administrators. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Jindal, R., & Borah, M. (2015). Predictive analytics in a higher education context. IT Professional, 17(4), 24-33.

Kuh, G. D. (2008a). Why integration and engagement are essential to effective educational practice in the twenty-first century. Peer Review: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education, 10(4), 27-28.

Kuh, G. D. (2008b). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Peer Review: Emerging Trends and Key Debates in Undergraduate Education, 14(3), 29.

Kuh, G. D. (2015). Advising for student success [Presentation]. Presentation at the National Academic Advising Association International Conference, Melbourne, Australia. 

Education Advisory Board (2014). More than 100 higher education institutions utilize predictive analytics to raise graduation rates, Education LetterRetrieved from

Larose, D., Larose, C. (2015). Data mining and predictive analytics (Second ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Pea, C.H. (2014). Increasing the number of African American student in STEM careers: what works and what doesn’t. In K. Scott & State of Black Arizona (Eds.), State of Black Arizona Volume lll (47-66).  Retrieved from

Perna, L. W., & Jones, A. (2013). The state of college access and completion: Improving college success for students from underrepresented groups. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Thomas, J. C., Wolters, C., Horn, C., & Kennedy, H. (2014). Examining relevant influences on the persistence of African-American college students at a diverse urban university. Journal of College Student Retention, 15(4), 551-573.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Thomas, L., & Hixenbaugh, P., (Eds). 2006. Personal tutoring in higher education. Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books

Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2002). Educating culturally responsive teachers: A coherent approach. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Walker, K., & Dixon, V. (2002). Spirituality and academic performance among African American college students. Journal of Black Psychology, 28(2), 107- 120.

Cite this using APA style as:

Harrell, C. (2016) Advising African American Students. Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Cutural Issues in Advising Resources website:

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