High Impact Practices and Historically Underrepresented Minority Students

For over a decade Kuh’s (2008) work on the critical importance of engaged learning has shaped the undergraduate college and university experience. Kuh dubbed these teaching and learning experiences High Impact Practices, and taking part in at least one of them at some point during a collegian’s higher education career has become an unstated given. However, according to a 2013 report released by Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), there were significant differences in the rates of participation in high impact practices for historically underserved (i.e., underrepresented) students in comparison to students that did not identify as underserved/underrepresented. Students who could be identified as underserved and underrepresented had a lower participation rate in high impact practices. The assessment also found that historically underrepresented or underserved (e.g., racial minorities, first-generation) students that participated in more than one high impact practice reported significantly greater gains in “deeper learning” and learning outcomes than their peers who reported involvement in only one high impact practice. This 2013 report illuminated a persistent and potentially growing educational disparity in many students’ access to the full collegiate experience. It also established the need for models that encourage and support engagement in multiple high impact practices throughout the collegiate career, especially for historically underrepresented students.

The AAC&U currently lists eleven practices (including undergraduate research, learning communities, service learning, study abroad, and capstone courses) that, according to the work by Kuh and colleagues, have a likelihood of generating deep learning opportunities and gains across both academic and social domains. These gains are largely driven by immeasurable opportunities for collaborative learning, such as teacher-student partnerships and tailored, nuanced feedback. There is no shortage of research (e.g., Finley and McNair 2013; Kilgo, Sheets, and Pascarella 2015; Quaye and Harper 2014) on the importance of these practices and the multi-level benefits for the entire academic community, including the institution, the student, and the faculty/staff. However, lurking in the shadows of this important model for student development and achievement is a persistent disparity in engagement for Historically Underrepresented Minority Students (HURMS).

Key Terms

Historically Underrepresented Minority Students (HURMS) – According to NACME (2013), HURMS are persons who are members of racial, ethnic, or gender groups that have been disproportionately underrepresented for a period of more than ten years. Traditionally, Historically Underrepresented Minority (HURM) students are members of groups that have “historically comprised a minority of the US population.” This typically includes African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and Hispanics. A broader definition includes Asian and Pacific Islanders. If we are considering HURM students in the context of certain academic disciplines such as STEM, this definition should evolve to also include women. Bourke (2016) states that members of underrepresented racial groups are not only underrepresented numerically but also systemically through social structures and the ways in which power is situated among groups. This systemic underrepresentation reinforces the need for consideration of invisibility over time and how it continues to impact access and equity issues. For example, racial minorities represent about 15% of the college-aged population in the US, but at top-tier institutions their presence represents only about 6% since 1980. The rate of growth for student enrollment for racial minorities does not come close to the pace of general population growth for these same groups. Diversity, inclusion, and equity are critically important in addressing the needs of HURMS.

After reviewing multiple diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements from universities, colleges, and the AAC&U, the following working definitions emerged:

Diversity can simply be defined as the “presence of difference in a given setting.” It reflects the representation of individual differences and the constellations of those varied intersecting differences. Frequently mentioned differences include, but are not limited to, race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ability, and religion. Diversity also reflects the representation of social and group differences, such as cultural capital, positionality, and privilege. What constitutes a difference is continuously evolving and expanding. Sustainable efforts are needed to acknowledge, engage, and respect differences that make up our communities as they are today and as they will be in the future. In its purest application diversity is merely compositional. This means that if you were to catalogue or take a census of your program’s participants you would find representation of a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. However, this compositional approach to diversity has been deemed by many as an unfinished thought. Yes, there is representation but that representation does not mean there is change or community.

Inclusion is ongoing engagement with diversity (i.e., our individual and group differences). This engagement should have an intentional goal of understanding how power and a recognition of the positionality is inherent among differences. Differences have historical, current, and future implications for the individual, the group, the institution, and the systems. Through the deliberate celebration of diversity, which includes the act of making and acknowledging the space both individuals and groups maintain, an authentic environment can be crafted that is welcoming and committed to difference.  Bolger (2018) defined inclusion as “different identities’ feeling of being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting.” A focus on inclusion requires moving beyond just recruiting for diverse populations or participants towards reframing systems around interactions, practices, and barriers that both increase and decrease retention of persons with marginalized identities. Inclusion is not merely the act of wanting or noticing diversity, it is an oath to reshape the community, climate, and space into one that embraces dynamic change and growth.

Equity is not equality. Equity is the purposeful investment in the creation of protected opportunities, access, and space for historically underserved and undervalued populations while also simultaneously reducing the barriers these people have encountered throughout all levels of the institution.  Equity is the acknowledgement that historically underrepresented minority students (HURMS) have been given unequal starting places. Bolger (2018) insists that equity is the continuous pursuit of “correct[ing] and address[ing] the historic imbalance.” Cochran (2018) further clarifies our understanding of the crucial need for equity when she describes what happens when diversity is sought without it: “Diversity efforts are often concentrated on how we ‘fix’ individuals from marginalized or minoritized groups or what we can do to support them to pursue or persist despite inequity. Equity concerns focus more on changing the structures and systems that create the inequities in the first place.” At its core equity or “equity-mindedness” is a justice orientation with an unwavering commitment to right past and present wrongs. Equity is nuanced, highly flexible, and adaptable.

Theoretical Frameworks for Addressing Engagement Disparities in HIPs for HURMS

Critical Race Theory

In the seminal work of Ladson-Billings and Tate (1995), the scholars call for the application of a critical race theoretical framing for understanding educational disparities and structures that perpetually disadvantage HURMS. They posit that the oppressive social inequity embedded within the fabric of US higher education is a result of (1) the centrality of race as a means of determining positionality; (2) the US societal reliance on property rights, which they argue should include intellectual property and be further extended to also include curriculum; and (3) the intersection of both race and property. At the intersection of race and property, higher education institutions must consider who both the generators (e.g., authors, professors) and the gatekeepers (e.g., editors, administrators) are in creating educational spaces, as well as question how we assign value or respectability to scholarship, curriculum, and other educational practices. These three factors are key drivers behind the experience for HURMS in higher education.

Diverse Learning Environments

Hurtado, Alvarez, Guillermo-Wann, Cuellar, and Arellando (2015) reintroduce their comprehensive Multi-Contextual Model for Diverse Learning Environments (DLE) in their highly cited chapter reviewing the scholarship on creating and assessing conditions for student success. The overarching purpose of their model is to acknowledge three main points:

  • There are multiple nested contexts (similar to Bronfenbrenner’s [1977, 1979] ecological framework for understanding human development) within and beyond the institution that continuously and dynamically intersect while providing spheres of influence for individuals who occupy space within the university.
  • Individuals—in this case, those a part of the institution (i.e., students, faculty, and staff)—are agents of change who have the power to generate movements of campus climate change.
  • The ultimate goal or outcome of an institution is the creation of persons who continuously seek out opportunities to learn and are not only competent in a multicultural world but active citizens that will contribute to “our collective social and economic success.”

Hurtado et al. (2015) also center their model on the experience of historically underrepresented minorities (HURM), more specifically the intersection of these students’ multiple social identities.

Community Cultural Capital

Steeped in critical race theory(CRT), Yosso’s (2005) work presents a helpful framework for recognizing the capital that HURMS bring to a mentored relationship, more specifically those made in undergraduate research (UR). In applying CRT, Yosso expands the default assumptions around cultural capital to reflect what she refers to as “community cultural wealth.” This wealth is born out of the experience of being a historical minority. According to Yosso (2005), there are six types of capital (aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistant) that are nurtured by communities of color and collectively form cultural wealth that can be overlooked if not using a CRT lens. These six types of capital are what can contribute to the dynamic potential of HURMS in a HIP and the benefits faculty stand to inherit when they enter into a collaborative, critically mentored partnership with a HURM student.

Best Practices for Engaging and Sustaining HURM Participation in HIPs

Undergraduate Research

  1. When evaluating and searching for potential UR students, apply a cultural capital framework.
  2. Infuse CRT into research by valuing an experience epistemology, using research as a tool for social justice work, and acknowledging that race (and other oppressed identities) matter. Finally, whenever possible work on transdisciplinary teams.
  3. CUREs are not the answer if they are not mentored.
  4. Become familiar with the barriers to HIP participation that HURMS frequently encounter.
  5. Critically reflect on how you are finding your students. Consider using work study as a gateway to finding research students. Stop waiting for students to find you; find them through deliberate partnerships with persons and offices that work closely with HURMS.
  6. Decolonize your syllabus. If you only present majority viewpoints you will signal to students from non-majority identities that this discipline is not for and does not include them.

Study Abroad

  1. Institute travel peers (i.e, groups for HURMS) prior to leaving. Facilitating connections between persons who share similar identities is an opportunity for counter-space development. Working with the destination institution to offer affinity groups to persons before they arrive might create networks of support that HURMS will most likely need.
  2. Students, staff, and faculty need widespread, far-reaching training on what bias is; this training can also help to determine levels of intercultural/international readiness of students.
  3. Students should expect pre, during, and post reflections. Don’t assume that a divisive campus climate will go away when abroad. Faculty/staff must actively work to disassemble identity silos.
  4. Consider the appeal for heritage-seeking or connection destinations for HURMS. Can you create more of these opportunities?
  5. Ask yourself these six questions before planning a study abroad trip.
  6. Identify and acknowledge the barriers and challenges (e.g., cost, how it fits in the four-year study plan, and students’ lack of experience traveling) to study abroad for HURMS.

Application of Critical Mentoring for HURMS Sustained Engagement in HIPs Model

Critical Mentoring is custom fitted to the student. Liou, Martinez, and Rotheram-Fuller (2016) defined critical mentoring to be a “reciprocal and reflexive process” that prepares the student (i.e., mentee) for a world that is historically inequitable and characterized by dynamic changes in social, political, economic, and power relationships. What is central to their conceptualization of critical mentoring is the role of the mentor, which they view as the amplifier of the mentee’s cultural capital. In simple terms, critical mentorship begins with a commitment from the mentor to want and actively champion the success of their student above all other outcomes.

Emerging Questions for Research, Practice, and Theory

Nurturing the curricular and co-curricular experience of HURMS is a nuanced and mighty task. As historically marginalized students, their positionality is both political and personal. Understanding the multiple contexts and relationships they navigate through is critical. Effective critical mentoring requires a level of amplified attention and embeddedness that may exacerbate faculty, staff, and mentor burnout. Prior to encouraging critical mentoring, research should explore what resources and supports mentors need to sustain this work.

Previous research, such as the AAC&U 2013 report, points to the significant gains made from participation in multiple HIPs over a collegiate career, especially for HURMS.  Are there packaged experiences that are the most beneficial for HURMS? For example, would a concurrent HIP experience, such as a research- or internship- embedded study abroad experience, have the same impact for a student’s learning gains as engaging in consecutive semesters of HIPs? Which path toward engagement in multiple HIPs is more sustainable and meaningful to the student?

There is also a need to examine the engagement of HURMS in HIPs across different types of schools and institutions. A number of large state, public institutions are working to encourage HURMS in HIPs; how can their strategies fit into the very different infrastructures of smaller private institutions? Finally, is the rate of engagement in HIPs by HURMS related to the diversity at both the faculty and staff levels? Does greater involvement in HIPs by HURMS drive the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff that also identify as HURM?

Finally, have we really identified all the HIPs that should be considered as producers of elevated educational experiences for students, specifically HURMS? The construction or identification of HIPs was done from a colorblind position. In theory these are practices all students should benefit from; however the educational context is not colorblind, because education in the US is not equitable. Perhaps, when critically centering the HURMS experience, there are other forms of engagement and practice that are just as impactful as the original eleven Kuh and colleagues identified in 2008.

Examples of Innovative Ways to Engage HURMS

Summer Research Experiences for Underrepresented Minority Students:

Work Study as a Gateway: George Mason – OSCAR program

Study Abroad Experiences – Heritage Seeking: Diasporic Soul Healing Centered-Leadership Development




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Content written by Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies. Dr. Longmire-Avital was the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focused on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.