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The Pell Institute and Penn AHEAD Blog - Improving Equity in Higher Education: The Search for Solutions

Telling the Real Mason Story of Diversity: Lessons in Closing Graduation and Completion Gaps

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Distressing racial and socioeconomic gaps persist in college graduation rates at two-year and four-year educational institutions in the United States (Ginder et al., 2016). Even as colleges and universities enroll increasingly diverse populations of students, they struggle to improve the persistence and graduation rates of African American and Latinx students as well as students from low-income backgrounds (Jack, 2016).[1] Reports indicate that closing these gaps is an increasing problem at four-year institutions. For instance, the six-year bachelor’s degree attainment rate for Black students who start college as first-time, full-time freshman is 22 percentage points below that of their White peers (Nichols & Evans-Bell, 2017). Additionally, degree attainment levels of Latinx adults today are about 10 percentage points lower than the attainment levels of White adults nearly 30 years ago (Schak & Nicols, 2017).

As colleges leaders strive to overcome these challenges, we encourage them to look to George Mason University (Mason) for insights, strategies, and lessons learned. A recent Education Trust study of graduation rates at 676 four-year public and private institutions (Nichols & Evans-Bell, 2017) identified Mason as one of the top-performing institutions for Black student success. Listed among the top 20 institutions for Black student performance, Mason graduated 65.7% of its Black students during the Education Trust study period, and its graduation rate for Black students was just 0.3 percent behind that of their White peers (Cristodero, 2017).

Building on the Education Trust’s findings, we sought to identify the people, policies, and programs at Mason that contribute to the persistence and graduation of African American and Latinx students as well as of students of any racial or ethnic background who receive Pell Grants. Two central questions drove our research:

  • What internal institutional support structures at Mason minimize the completion gap between targeted students and their counterparts?
  • What strategies do targeted Mason undergraduates use to engage institution, peer, or family resources in order to persist and graduate?

To answer these questions, we interviewed 87 undergraduates—about a third of them were juniors—in focus groups of five to seven students. We also met with 45 Mason administrative staff (11 focus groups of 2–5 staff and six individual interviews with executive staff).[2]

Here we present key findings from our study:

Finding #1: Students at Mason benefit from access to a wide variety of in-college experiences and collaborative institutional supports. Foundational higher education research has shown that in-college experiences are more predictive of student success than pre-college or outside factors, suggesting that on-campus experiences and supports far outweigh the advantages of social, geographic, and academic backgrounds of college students (Donovan, 1984). Mason has a plethora of mechanisms—whether internal units, departments, divisions, programs, or activities—to support students from the study population. These support mechanisms generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Intentional support structures—those perceived as deliberately created to support students with a variety of needs, including students in study population and the larger student population more generally. Such structures include the offices of financial aid and admissions.
  • Accidental support structures—those perceived as arising somewhat spontaneously or accidentally in response to student needs—needs that were not being met by existing formal structures—and were then developed to improve in-college experiences. Examples include students finding support structures at their work-study environments and students finding support in structures meant for other demographics.
  • Formal support structures—those perceived as having formal roles, such as offices that enforce and monitor policies and practices around anti-harassment or policies put in place to protect persons of color, women, disabilities, and others.
  • Informal support structures—those perceived as informal and outside of existing Mason units. These supports tend to be resource offices that provide informal support beyond their intentional or formal roles. Examples include student-created groups not under university supervision or control and staff-student interactions that do not fall under the staff’s university-approved job descriptions.

Collaboration characterizes much of this support at Mason—including collaboration among units and departments within university life, academic advising, and admissions. The strength of these collaborative support structures at Mason is built on relationships between students and staff. Staff and students identified key collaborative functions such as:

  • Networking through academic advising and social support
  • Navigating university functions and offices by giving students one-on-one attention and assisting them with academic and social support
  • Supporting retention analysis specific to study populations through offices that support and concern themselves with keeping students in school;
  • Facilitating student involvement on campus through participation with student groups; and
  • Empowering holistic student development rather than only focusing on academic and career goals.

Even with these collaborative support structures, participating students identified what we term “anchor offices” that provide optimal support and success. For instance, students identified the Center for Academic Advising, Retention and Transitions; the Early Identification Program; and the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education as particularly important for fostering a sense of belonging. This finding bolsters arguments by Tinto (1975) and others (Museus, 2008; Hurtado & Carter, 1997) that students who feel isolated or distant from the campus community in some way often have negative experiences (both socially and academically), which in turn affects their persistence in higher education.

Finding 2: The notion of grit, while perceived generally as a positive attribute, neglects institutional efforts and supports for successful matriculation and graduation. Grit is seen as an important individual attribute for academic and career success. Persevering passionately toward long-term goals is positively associated with Black male success at predominantly white institutions (Strayhorn, 2013). As illustrated in the following quote from a student in a focus group, self-motivation and grit are factors that contribute to success for Mason students as well:

I want to do it for personal growth and my own career. Right now, I want to be an occupational therapist. Everyone in my family are teachers or they’re a little bit of the low-income side. If I want to strive and do something better and greater than that and open new opportunities for myself, I have to work hard, and I have to do that for myself. Make them proud in a way but also, I’m doing this for me. I don’t have siblings. It’s just me, myself, and I. I have to do it if I want to do something greater.” (April 11 Student Focus Group)

But attributing grit to underserved and underrepresented students does not tell the whole story of academic success. Grit, for instance, cannot overcome the bureaucratic challenges of the “Mason Shuffle,” a term used by students and staff to describe the process of shuffling or bouncing students from office to office in an impersonal manner. Grit also cannot overcome the academic barriers and financial challenges (two of the most identified college-staying barriers identified by students) that impede the study population from making the most of their academic life.

Finding #3: Recognition of the diversity of Mason’s undergraduate population is lauded by students and staff respondents, although questions remain about impact of diversity at other institutional levels. Mason’s undergraduate student population is considered extremely diverse by most metrics across ethnicity, gender, and geography. The percentage of White students (42.6%) is nearly equal to the combined percentages of Asian (19.3%), Latinx (13.5%), and Black (10.8%) students (College Factual, 2019). Interestingly, though, the students we interviewed tended to perceive the university’s communications about diversity as more about burnishing the institution’s brand than promoting authentic relationships between various student populations or supporting more rigorous efforts on campus to ensure and celebrate diversity. One student in a focus group indicated that despite Mason’s highly touted diversity, segregation and lack of authentic mixing of groups persisted:

One thing bad about Mason is that I feel it’s at other schools. Like they only have like Black Mason, White Mason. Like everybody is kind of like mixed in together. Mason is not really mixed in together. (4/26 Student Focus Group)

To challenge the perceived notions of diversity at an institutional level, Mason students reported taking it upon themselves to find support structures that address their own specific identity and cultural needs. In fact, amid the larger institutional celebrations of diversity, Mason students realized that staying within self-identified groups or anchor offices and navigating resources collectively contributed to their own success within Mason.

Additionally, students and staff alike noted the dismally low number of faculty of color as well as Mason’s lack of success in recruiting and retaining such faculty members.

Finding #4: Building on the identities of staff and the assets of students is key to improving student success. Staff identities play an important part in facilitating student success at Mason. Staff categorized themselves as either having similar identities as students (first generation, person of color, LBGT, Pell recipient, etc.) or having gained experiences in their professional careers that made them more empathetic and sensitive to the needs of those from the study population. One staff member’s comment during a focus group highlights the deep personal empathy and shared identities of Mason staff:

So, I understand, that’s why I mentioned the first thing, what I represent when I walk on this campus. And what I represent now as a black, queer woman doctor, right? In academia. What that means and how I embody that and how I dress and, says a lot about what I’m trying to combat about the stereotypes about academia.” (2/15 Staff Focus Group)

Staff—especially those from anchor offices—expressed a commitment to fostering student diversity and success that went above and beyond Mason’s institutional support structures.

Mason students from the study population do not fit the cultural deficit student model that purports that they have little in the way of assets that they bring to campus. Quite the contrary, students identified academic, family, and social assets that support their college-going experiences. Additionally, students from the study population at Mason aspire to the same types of things as students from the mainstream, though they likely encounter more barriers and have access to fewer resources and assets.

Recent asset-based research has documented how students from nondominant backgrounds navigate higher education institutions, especially predominantly white ones (Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Museus, 2017; Museus & Quaye, 2009). This study contributes to that work by recognizing the importance of an asset-based, holistic approach to providing appropriate cultural, leadership, and organizational support for students from the study population.

Findings from this study suggest that key practices and structures at Mason foster success among African American and Latinx students as well as students from low-income backgrounds. It takes certain types of staff and offices to effectively mentor, support, and inspire students from the study population. In addition to having anchor offices and support structures in place, Mason staff and students continually look for ways to focus on the assets and opportunities for underserved and underrepresented students to excel. As university leaders work to close racial gaps on their own campuses, they might well benefit from looking to Mason for insights.


College Factual. (2019). GMU Student Population Stats.

Cristodero, D. (2017). The Education Trust names Mason a top institution for black student success.

Donovan, R. (1984). Path analysis of a theoretical model of persistence in higher education among low-income black youth. Research in Higher Education, 21, 243–252.

Ginder, S. A., Kelly-Reid, J. E., & Mann, F .B. (2016). Graduation rates for selected cohorts, 2007–12; Student financial aid, academic year 2014–15; Admissions in postsecondary

institutions, Fall 2015: First look (Provisional Data) (NCES 2017-084). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Hurtado, S., & Carter, D. (1997). Effects of college transition and perceptions of the campus racial climate on Latina/o college students’ sense of belonging. Sociology of Education, 70, 324–345.

Jack, A. A. (2016). (No) harm in asking: Class, acquired cultural capital and academic engagement at an elite university. Sociology of Education, 89(1), 1–19.

Museus, S. D. (2008). The role of ethnic student organizations in fostering African American and Asian American students’ cultural adjustment and membership at predominantly white institutions. Journal of College Student Development, 49(6), 568–586.

Museus, S. D., & Quaye, S. J. (2009). Toward an intercultural perspective of racial and ethnic minority college student persistence. The Review of Higher Education, 33(1), 67–94.

Nichols, A. H., & Evans-Bell, D. (2017). A look at black student success: Identifying top- and bottom- performing institutions. Washington, DC: The Education Trust.

Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research & evaluation methods: Integrating theory and practice, 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Schak, J. O., & Nicols, A.H. (2017). Degree attainment for Latino adults: National and state trends. Washington, DC: Education Trust.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2013). What role does grit play in the academic success of Black male collegians at predominantly white institutions? Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 1–10.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89–125.

[1] In this study, we use Latinx to denote the reference to Latino/Latina or those referencing Latin American cultural or racial identity.  We use African-Americans to denote reference to Black Americans with total or partial ancestry to Africa.

[2] For details on our methodology and the study in general, please contact the lead author.

Rodney Hopson, Marvin Powell, Sarah Bogdewiecz, Akashi Kaul, Sara Montiel and Sekou Sankofa

Rodney Hopson, Ph.D. serves as Professor of Evaluation in the Department of Educational Psychology, College of Education, University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. For additional information about Dr. Hopson please visit 

Marvin Powell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University. Powell focuses on quantitative methods and is interested in research using a critical lens.

Sarah Bogdewiecz is a PhD student in Higher Education at George Mason University and an administrator at Northern Virginia Community College overseeing academic support services for the largest campus.  Additionally, she was recently recognized as a 2019-2020 Virginia Community College System Fellow. 

Akashi Kaul is a PhD candidate in the Education Policy program at George Mason University. Her research interests include international development, evaluation and social justice research. 

Sara Montiel is the Associate Director of Student Services in the School of Integrative Studies at George Mason University. She is PhD student in Higher Education with research interests in the access and retention of first- and second-generation immigrant students in higher education.

S. Divine Sankofa is a PhD student in the Higher Education Leadership and Policy Studies program in the School of Education at Howard University. With over a decade of teaching at the K- 12 and higher education level, he has been a school-based and central office education leader. His research surrounds black male achievement throughout the education pipeline.