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Advising Students of Color
Authored by: Blane Harding

Diversity and multiculturalism continue to constitute important and salient issues on campuses across the United States.  These concepts are widely defined and include such areas as sexual orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status.  Although each of these are important factors that contribute to individual and group identities, race and ethnicity can still be dominant and problematic to students entering our institutions. 


College and university personnel have designed numerous programs and support systems for student of color and in order for these systems to be effective there has to be greater understanding of the demographics of these students. We can no longer look at broad categories such as African American, Latino(a)/Hispanic, or Asian American because there is as much difference among these groups as there is between these groups. For example, individuals that identify as Cuban are different than those that identify as Mexican as are students that identify as Chinese as opposed to those that identify as Hmong.  Each campus must have a firm understanding of their individual student populations in order to structure programs that meet their cultural and academic needs.

Students of color are one of the fastest growing groups on our campuses. The percentage of college students who are Hispanic has increased from 3% to 12%, from 1976 to 2009. In that same time period the ratio of Blacks has risen from 9% to 14%, and the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander has risen from 2% to 7% (Snyder & Dillow, pg. 282) and historically have had limited access to higher education. Immigration trends over the past few generations have resulted in a drastic increase in college age Hispanics and Asian American/Pacific Islander students.  For example, between  2000-2010, the United States Census  (2011) shows a  43.0% change in the Hispanic population and a  43.3% change in the Asian population in the United States.  At the same time, changes in the law and attitudes of society toward interracial marriages have produced a significant increase in those who identify themselves as bi-racial, a group who often arrive on our campuses with not only educational concerns but, just as importantly, arrive with identity development issues.  Lastly, we are seeing an increase in the number of American Indian/Alaska native students, as their enrollment has doubled from 1976-2006  (Snyder & Dillow, 2008).

Even given the increase in students of color on American campuses, only 20% of Blacks and 13.9% of Hispanics, over the age of 25 have earned a four year degree while the national average is 30.3% (Digest of Education Statistics, 2010) For the so-called “Model Minority,” the 2000 census found that 44.1% of Asian/Pacific Islanders have earned a four year college degree(U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

However, this statistic largely applies to ethnic groups such as the Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese.  More recent Asian immigrants such as the Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians lag behind at 9.2%, 7.5%, and 7.7% respectively (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). The same can be said of Hispanic groups in which Cubans far surpass Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in terms of educational attainment (Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).  We must avoid lumping diverse students into broad racial and ethnic categories and understand that we must treat the individual within the cultural context.

Campus practitioners, such as academic advisors, can make significant contributions to the retention, educational attainment, and eventual graduation of this rising potential student population.  Although we want to avoid stereotypical attitudes toward any group, many students of color share similar characteristics in terms of their prior educational experience and socio-economic background.

For example, both Blacks and Hispanics rank toward the bottom in terms of average household income, parental educational attainment, and lower ACT and SAT scores  (Aud, Fox & KewalRamani, 2010).  They also generally come from a K-12 school district that is separated by race and class (McArdle, Osypuk, and Acevedo-Garcia, 2010).  Some key characteristics of this population include:

  • Low academic skills due to K-12 educational training and experience
  • Lack of role models on our campuses
  • Difficulty assimilating to campus, lack of “fit”, and feelings of isolation
  • Low self concept based upon previous academic experiences
  • Family and/or financial pressures due to socio-economic class
  • Limited coping skills
  • Unaware of support systems on campus

Academic advisors should utilize various advising techniques to avoid stereotypical attitudes, expectations, and images. Ethnic groups have varying attitudes toward help seeking behavior; advisors should be proactive in suggesting and informing students of tutoring, supplemental instruction, mentoring, and other forms of student support systems. 

Advisors also should be aware of various student organizations and assist student of color in forming student connections. Connecting students to clubs and organizations will allow students of color to feel that they belong and are an integral part of campus life as well as provide them with a way to connect with students in similar situations as themselves.  Students of color must have the opportunity and assistance needed to make sense of any marginalized experiences.

Just as important as understanding our own campuses, advisors must understand the role of the family in students’ efforts to achieve a college degree. Many colleges and universities offer multicultural or diversity training that can assist us. On campuses with no diversity training advisors can utilize NACADA resources to learn more about student needs and effective outreach strategies. One such resource is the NACADA webcast recording Expanding Your Comfort Zone: Strategies for Developing and Demonstrating Cultural Competence in Academic Advising.

Campus personnel should make themselves visible and attend events to establish credibility and strengthen their relationships with students of color.  It is not necessary to look like the students we advise, but it is mandatory that we gain their respect and in turn give them the respect they deserve.  It is not enough to be culturally aware. Advisors should strive to be culturally competent.  Awareness involves being sensitive to issues related to culture, race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and socioeconomic factors.  Cultural competence requires more than knowledge.  It is leveraging a complex combination of knowledge, attitudes, and skills to engage and intervene appropriately and effectively across cultures.  In other words, to be culturally competent we must have the ability to apply what we have learned.

Once we have gained the ability to apply what we have learned we can allow students to self-identify. Not every Black student identifies as being Black just like not every Asian American or Hispanic student identifies with their ethnic background. Advisors must be sensitive to this and let students choose what aspects of their identity are important to them at any given time.  Students, just like the rest of us in society, go in and out of identities given the situations and people they find themselves around. Black students may want to identify as Black around their friends but in the classroom they may simply want to just be a student like those around them. Students should be given the ability to self-identify;  when advisors are culturally competent we consider the individual within a cultural context.  The individual always comes first; when we allow individuals to self-identify we can better serve them and have a greater understanding of their cultural connections.  Allowing students to self-identify provides advisors with key information needed to develop plans to assist students in their goals or to identify barriers to their success.

I suggest following these guidelines when working with diverse populations that allow for culturally responsive interactions.  These include:

  • Consideration of cultural factors in interventions with students.  We must keep in mind that differences are just that and not deficiencies. We must meet students where they are and allow them to tell their own stories.
  • We must examine our own cultural baggage and consider our possible cultural privileges when working with students from diverse cultural backgrounds.
  • We must always keep in mind each student’s level of cultural identity development and their degree of acculturation.
  • We must be willing to learn from diverse students and utilize their experiences in advocating for changes in the “system.”

Understanding our diverse students is just the first step in becoming a culturally competent advisor.  The additional challenge is getting to know ourselves better and understanding our world view and how that view may or may not serve as a barrier to helping students.  There are certain questions we should ask ourselves to better understand where we stand; these questions include:

  • What rising potential groups do I identify with? How does my identification with those groups influence  my self-positioning in the world or in my academic community?
  • What assumptions do I make about rising potential students on a regular basis? How many of these assumptions can be considered generalizations? Stereotypes?
  • What might I need to learn about my advisees’ individual cultural backgrounds to ensure that I am relating and communicating effectively with them?
  • How often do I expose myself to cultural gatherings and events that represent racial/ethnic cultures other than my own?
  • How does my worldview help or hinder me in understanding my advisees’ perspective.
  • What are other cultures or rising potential groups that I identify with?
  • How aware am I of customs and behaviors that have different meanings in different cultures? How might my awareness (or lack of awareness) of behavioral variety affect my interactions with my students?

Blane Harding

Director, Office of Multicultural Affairs

University of Kansas


Aud, S., Fox, M. A., and KewalRamani, A. (July 2010). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved from 

McArdel, N., Osypuk, T., & Acevedo-Garcia, D. (2010). Segregation and exposure to high-poverty schools in large metropolitan areas: 2008-09. Retrieved from

Pew Hispanic Center, (2006). Cubans in the United States. Retrieved from

Snyder, T. and Dillow, S. (2008) Digest of Education Statistics 2007. National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved from

Snyder, T. and Dillow, S. (2011) Digest of Education Statistics 2010. National Center for Educational Statistics. Retrieved from

 U.S. Census Bureau.  (2004). We the people: Asians in the United States (CENSR-17). Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (2011). The Hispanic population:2010 (C2010BR-04) Retrived from

Cite this using APA style as:

Harding, B. (2012). Students of Color. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website:

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