Unexpected Challenges BIPOC Students Face

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

While BIPOC students as a whole face different challenges that their white student counterparts either don’t face or face at lower rates, the picture is even more nuanced: Different groups within the BIPOC population may face unique challenges. This is even more complicated once you consider individual cultures and backgrounds.

BIPOC folks are less likely to know how to navigate higher ed. A lot of them may be first gen. So the level of awareness relates to the level of understanding and how they navigate these systems.

–Paula Umana

Challenge: Not Knowing What to Expect in College

The folks who told you to go to college may not have told you what to expect while in college—but they did tell white students. BIPOC students tend to be left out of many conversations about the college enrollment process, either because they attended lower-income schools that didn't have college and career counselors or because of unconscious biases keeping these students from being invited to the table.

Challenge: Being a First-Generation Student

Many BIPOC students are first-generation students. First-generation students may or may not have parents who support postsecondary education. Regardless, they certainly don't have parents who know from firsthand experience what postsecondary school is like.

Challenge: Bait and Switch

In some cases, promises about educational support aren't kept. When you start work or classes, it may become apparent that all that glitters isn't gold. Maybe a school overexaggerated its experience with immigrant students. Perhaps it oversold the number of jobs or housing units for parents on its campus.

Challenge: Cultural and Language Differences

Cultural and language barriers can interfere with learning. Even if you were raised in America and speak fluent English, your upbringing and that of a white professor may differ. For instance, if you were brought up to say "sir" or "ma'am," you may find some teachers uncomfortable with it. That could quickly go from miscommunication to each side feeling disrespected.

Challenge: Bias in Assumptions About Abilities

For decades, viciously biased racially biased "studies" seemingly indicated that people who aren't white were less intelligent. Obviously, this has been debunked over and over. But this remains rooted in many white people's minds, perhaps unconsciously, particularly if they grew up when these studies were considered truthful.

Challenge: Achievements Are Downplayed

Perhaps because statistics show that BIPOC individuals are more likely to live in poverty, some assume this is the background of every BIPOC student. This can work two ways: if you are a BIPOC student who did not grow up poor, you may be uncomfortable with this erroneous assumption made about you. On the other hand, if you actually did grow up in poverty as a BIPOC student and overcome barriers to become a first-generation postsecondary student, you may be granted less “credit” because this is seen as normal. In comparison, a white student who overcame the same socioeconomic barriers might be heralded.

Challenge: “Race-Blind” Policies

Professors, instructors, and staff may ignore race entirely. For white people, this wouldn't matter. But many people of teaching age were raised to believe they "don't see color" and still think that's healthy. In reality, race is central to many BIPOCs' identities, and it's best to acknowledge and respect that.

Challenge: Subjects Studied Aren’t Relatable

Many topics studied in school, even postsecondary education, feature white protagonists. Some professors don't know about changemakers like Clara Luper, Marie Maynard Daly, or Sylvia Mendez and her family. And when it comes to fiction? Forget it; the characters and writers studied are disproportionately white. It's harder to succeed when you can't see yourself in the work.

Challenge: Microaggressions

Microaggressions are real. Microaggressions are real! If you've ever heard someone say, "Oh, wow, you speak English really well!" with no sign that the recipient spoke another language, you witnessed a microaggression. And that's just one example of the little things people do or say that can make others uncomfortable about simply existing in a space.

White cisgender men don't deal with microaggressions, and not ones based on race or gender. Women, especially women of color, are more likely to deal with them. The more underrepresented a group is, the more likely these are to occur. Though usually unintentional, they can cause a major feeling of unsafety.

Challenge: Lack of Cultural Understanding in Policies

One-size-fits-all rules don't actually fit. Educators may follow old-school rules that could heavily affect BIPOC. A big example is bereavement. Some teachers only consider immediate family members' deaths as valid excuses for missing class. Grandparents, cousins, or foster families don’t count! But in many non-white cultures, these relationships are as important as immediate family ties. A student may feel they're considered lazy or overdramatic for missing class after a loss of a family member who is not strictly an immediate family member.

Challenge: Struggle to Meet Basic Living Needs

Students of color are less likely to have basic needs—food, shelter, and so forth—met. While most white students never have to truly worry if they're going to eat today, BIPOC students are more likely to have this concern.

In a report, we saw the big disparities between certain groups. And we saw that the basic-needs insecurity between Blacks and whites has a 16-percentage point disparity. So a Black or Brown person is 16 percentage points more likely to have basic-needs insecurities than someone white. We also saw that basic-needs insecurities are prevalent in two-year institutions by eight percentage points.

–Paula Umana

Explore more of the BIPOC Student Success Guide


The BIPOC School Experience


Unexpected Challenges for BIPOC Students


Options After High School


BIPOC Student Success Tips


BIPOC Student Advocacy and Self-Advocacy


Going Deeper: Resources Used in This Guide