BIPOC Student Success Tips

Featuring expert advice from:

Paul Mitchell

Paul Mitchell, Assistant Professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism and Coordinator of Recruitment and Retention at the University of Nevada, Reno

Paula Umana

Paula Umaña, Director of Institutional Engagement at the Hope Center

Prior to this chapter, we’ve focused a lot on the barriers and challenges for BIPOC students pursuing education beyond high school. Here, we introduce specific advice and tips for educational success, guided by our expert interviewees.

BIPOC Student Success Tip #1: Find the Right School

You may have been told that schools with the best reputation or ranking is the right school, period. For example, some believe Ivy League schools are always better than your state school. And your state school is better than community college. And community college is better than a short trade program.

Want to know a secret? The right school is the right school for you. It's not always the one with the biggest name, highest price tag, or lowest acceptance rate! Your ability to do well at a school and enjoy your time there is more important than the school's name.

How to Find Your Ideal School After High School

There isn't a hard and fast set of rules to finding your best school, but here are some steps to consider.

  • Decide why you want to go to school. If you don't want to go yet, you don't have to! If you want to attend school to learn a skill or continue your education, go for it. And remember that you don't have to pick a traditional path. Trade and vocational schools are just as valid as college programs.
  • List your "must haves" and "would likes." This can help you narrow your choices. These could include cost, location, school size, housing quality, services (e.g., childcare and healthcare), and majors.
  • Make a list of schools that meet most of your "must haves" and some of your "would likes."
  • Research those schools and narrow them down in a way that works for you, like a pro/con list.
  • Contact the school. Most sites say you must visit, but that's not always realistic. Even emailing them and seeing how they respond can tell you a lot.
  • Do a gut check. Don't ignore a bad feeling about a school, even if it's perfect on paper. In fact, using intuition after performing research can improve decision-making!

Just as you may not have a perfect answer for why you don't like kale but love asparagus, you don't need a perfect answer for why you chose a school. Some things just are. A reason that makes sense to you may not be "good enough" for someone else, and that's okay.

You have to envision yourself being on a campus where you're going to feel comfortable. If you don't like the cold weather, you probably don't want to go to cold-weather school….

–Paul Mitchell

What Should BIPOC Students Research About Schools?

BIPOC students should look into the same things as white students—tuition rates, graduation rates, and so forth—as well as some things that may be more relevant to their situations. These include:

  • The schools' histories of inclusion, their missions regarding diversity, and percentages of students and professors of color
  • On-campus resources and organizations built for BIPOC students
  • News stories regarding the school and discrimination or activism
  • How the school helps students in poverty, single parents, etc., if relevant
  • Student reviews of the school mentioning diversity issues
  • Professor reviews on a site like RateMyProfessors noting bias or diversity
  • If they have professionals focused on BIPOC outreach and assistance

Regarding that last point, consider finding someone like Paul Mitchell of the University of Nevada, Reno, on your preferred school's faculty. In addition to teaching in the Reynolds School of Journalism (RSJ) within the university, he's the Coordinator of Recruitment and Retention and the chair of the department's Diversity Committee.

That committee focuses on diversity-related topics, from curriculum development to recruitment and retention. A special thing the committee does—which may be worth searching for when looking at schools—is working with the Student Diversity Advisory Panel. This is important because even if the educators aren't strictly white, they're still in a very different part of their lives than the students—regardless of age. Depending on the school, some may have been out of the classroom (as students) for decades. Most schools with true emphases on diversity involve students in relevant decisions and discussions. After all, whom does it affect most?

BIPOC Student Success Tip #2: Contact the Schools You're Considering

Contact any part of the school that may be important to you. This could be financial aid, housing, affinity groups, your major's department, the counseling office, and the advisory office. Hearing from them can help you get a read on how things really are at the school.

Don't be afraid to ask hard questions to see how they respond in words, tone, and body language. They may seem a little uncomfortable, but discomfort and unwillingness aren't always the same. Race is difficult to discuss. But for a BIPOC student, seeing these decision-makers address the issue can be eye-opening.

After all, even public schools are running businesses. You need to be sure this place is straightforward with you.

The first communication that anyone receives from a college is sort of embellished. 'You were accepted after all the work... And by the way, we may give you a scholarship, but nothing is clear.

–Paula Umana

While some schools are transparent with their students, Umana says, this isn't the norm. Schools may oversell themselves to get you—and your tuition money—to show up. That's why talking to any school reps or students is essential. You can get a gut reading on how honest everyone is being.

BIPOC Student Success Tip #3: Figure Out How Much School Will Cost

School costs are more than tuition and fees. You need to factor in the costs of living, like food, transportation, housing, and more. Tuition calculators on school sites let you enter relevant details to estimate the total price, including these costs.

Of course, that doesn't include costs for non-essentials. Balancing school and life fun is important for mental health and academic success.


Costs of living are often underestimated. Even people who've lived in "the real world" for years may not be fully aware, as they're used to making do. According to Paula Umana, costs of living are often higher than tuition and fees, which grants, scholarships, and loans may help cover. In fact, she has discovered that students ultimately pay about 70% of all expenses out of pocket!

So when deciding on a school, you should look at the area's cost of living and the school's costs. There are many websites where you can check this out. Some of the expenses you should look for include:

  • Housing, including utilities (if living off campus or planning to do so in the future)
  • Transportation, including things like car insurance, if necessary
  • Grocery and other necessities
  • Childcare, if relevant

As a bonus, consider looking into how much free stuff there is to do in the town. Some places are expensive to live in just because there's so little to do without paying an arm and a leg.

Despite all the student debt news, many students are still told college can be easy to afford if they plan well and take out loans. So let's be honest: No amount of planning erases your current financial situation, regardless of what it is. (Plus, financial aid still factors in family contribution, even if there won't be any!) And student loans grow because of interest. Bottom line: Things aren't as easy as many believe, particularly if they haven't faced many financial or discriminatory struggles.

There are types of financial aid other than loans, such as grants and scholarships. Some are especially for BIPOC and first-generation students. And there are more than people realize. But they're often competitive, and having good grades and a robust resume may not be enough.

Other money-saving options include part-time classes (though this only helps in the short term), comparing loan rates and terms, or not going straight to a four-year school. Trade and associate degree programs take less time and are more affordable. Many passions can be fulfilled through certification programs.

Again, call us biased, but the beauty field is vast, and it's much cheaper than traditional school!

BIPOC Student Success Tip #4: Find Your Support System

Before choosing a college, you need to make sure it's likely to have people with whom you'll fit in well.

For some, this could mean an affinity group, such as a Black student union or LGBTQ+ organization. These groups intend to provide a sense of community to people from similar backgrounds.

Even if you're a member of a specific community, it doesn't necessarily mean you want to be a member of such a group. And that's fine! Your life is your own; you can shape it however you like. But according to Paul Mitchell, the existence of an active affinity group can tell you a lot about a school's commitment to diversity.

(And yes, there are affinity groups for online-only students at many schools!)

Beyond background, check out the people who could be your classmates. Do they seem to reflect your beliefs and experience? Or do they at least seem welcoming?

BIPOC Student Success Tip #5: Network

You've probably heard this: "It's not what you know; it's who you know." Firstly, what if you don't know anyone? Secondly, if that's true, then what's the point of going to school anyway?

Really, it should be, "Use what you know to find the people you should know." That includes your everyday knowledge and your career knowledge.

Networking is vital in all careers. But "networking" is a loaded word. It sounds like it's this whole skill set you're supposed to have, but chances are no one ever taught you about it. It doesn't have to be scary.

The New Rule of Networking: Be Kind

One of the best ways to get people to want to help you in your career is to be kind to them!

Think about the people for whom you would want to go out of your way. Are these people kind to others, or are they butt-kissers? Are they actively trying to improve things or only out for themselves?

You never know who could help you in your career—or whom you may be able to help. So being kind to everyone may do more than just make the world a bit brighter.

Do People Need to Be in My Field to Be Good Network Connections?

Anyone can be a good network connection. While those in your field are the obvious choices, you never know who could give you a leg up if you positively affected them.

Let's say you're a plumber and want to work for a new plumbing company. You post on social media that you're looking for a job with a plumbing company. At some point, you positively impacted someone who works in finance. Well, that acquaintance who works in finance may be a regular customer of a plumbing company. Since they remember your kindness, they could respond, "I'll recommend you to them! I use them all the time, so they know me."

You can meet acquaintances or friends like these anywhere. They could be your buddies from elementary school, a college student group, or, of course, within your program.

BIPOC Student Success Tip #6: Use Your Resources

"Pull yourself up by your bootstraps."

"I got to where I am with no help!"

"Only you are responsible for your future!"

Many people love to make boasts like these, but in our opinion, that's nonsense. No one has ever gotten anywhere without some kind of help. Don't be afraid to ask for help and guidance, thinking it's some sort of weakness. (Also, the people you meet when seeking help could become parts of your network!)

Some resources available to you could include:

  • Advisors
  • Professors
  • On-campus supports
  • Study groups
  • Online groups
  • Career-relevant clubs
  • Career-prep resources
  • Tutors or remedial classes
  • Government or charitable aid groups

For any of these to work, you need to advocate for yourself—and get others to advocate for you.

Explore more of the BIPOC Student Success Guide

Select a beauty program and state to view schools