The LEAP Challenge Blog

The Power of Labels to Determine Who Succeeds and Who Fails

"No one rises to low expectations." Many educators have probably heard this quote at some point in their professional career. The saying challenges us as educators to set the bar high for our students, and for ourselves; to seek excellence as a standard, not as a fortunate surprise. It challenges us not to engage in deficit-minded thinking when we interact with students, because our words and our actions send a powerful message that can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Educators must be a source of encouragement, inspiration, and motivation for all students—the academically prepared and underprepared. That is why it is so troubling when educators use words that negatively label students—words like "hopeless," "unmotivated," "disengaged," "uneducated." Even if we sometimes use these words reflexively or unintentionally, we have a responsibility to challenge those who describe our students in this manner and more fully commit ourselves not just to the academic success of some students but to every student enrolled in college.

As part of a grant from the TG Public Benefit Grant Program to AAC&U supporting the Give Students a Compass LEAP Project, we have been traveling to campuses in three states, conducting focus groups with students about their learning experiences. Specifically, we have been talking with students from groups traditionally underserved in higher education. These include students from underrepresented minority groups but also transfer, first-generation, or low-income students. Statistically, many of these students are likely to have been evaluated as "underprepared." Through our focus group discussions, we are seeking to add the essential student voice and perspective to an analysis of what it means to refer to students' college preparedness as "hopeless," their participation as "disengaged," or their work as "unmotivated." We have heard from students frustrated that being placed into remedial courses meant they had to spend critical time and tuition dollars to relearn material they already knew. One such student proudly told us and her peers around the table that after biding time demonstrating skills she already had in remedial math she now serves as a math tutor. Another student quietly noted that in high school she had been passed off from class to class, up and out, perhaps "written off" as someone who wouldn't make it in college. And here she was, in college, doing fine. Are these truly the underprepared students? Does a label of underprepared accompany an assumption of "unable" or "unwilling" to learn? As we gauge students' preparedness for college, are we also asking tough questions about our own preparedness as educators to teach and support them in their journey?

Deficit-minded thinking does not benefit anyone, especially our students. It hinders us from focusing on the assets that all students bring to the college experience. It rationalizes our subjective decision making about who is or is not ready for college-level work and what is or is not necessary for success. Instead, we should focus on the development of better, more meaningful tools to assess and foster the success of all our students. When we use unexamined assumptions about students' abilities we risk perpetuating existing inequities in our educational system and obscuring the relevance of race and class in matters of access and success.

We need to write about student success in higher education. We need to write about obstacles that stand in the way of student success. But we do not need to perpetuate a culture of "low" expectations and, thereby, limit student success. These are our students. We admit them to our institutions. We promise them an education. It is our responsibility to meet them where they are with the tools we have, with our experience as educators, and with the belief that they can improve. Our success is dependent upon helping each and every one of our students meet their potential. Anything short of that is hopeless.

Give Students a Compass is part of AAC&U's initiative to Make Excellence Inclusive, which also includes the Roadmap project for community college students.