Jennifer Han – Shifting the Access Framework of Higher Education: Benefits of a Strength-based Lens

Our perceptions are shaped by the way information is presented to us. This applies everywhere, including postsecondary education (PSE) where the dominant perspective often positions certain groups of students through a deficit framework. Deficit thinking uses a blame-the-victim way of attributing student failures to individual, family or community traits and approaches student difficulty through a needs assessment that focuses on deficiency. Although the intention may be to shed light on the barriers and challenges particular students face, using terms such “at-risk” and “disadvantaged” to identify students can perpetuate a narrative focused on the failure of these groups and distinguish them in terms of what one thinks they are not — not typical, not prepared for higher education, not set to succeed.

By considering certain groups of students using a deficit framework, PSE administrators and policy-makers flatten the diverse experiences of students and may further marginalize them. Deficit framing also promotes an understanding in which these students are more likely to fail due to individual shortcomings rather than institutional culture and systemic forms of oppression. Research shows that when educators have higher expectations of students, they will rise to meet to those expectations.

A strength-based framework offers an alternative that can improve access to PSE. This is based on the idea that students carry with them diverse experiences and perspectives that are incredibly valuable to PSE institutions; a strength-based framework allows programs to tap into these assets. It focuses on recognizing the capacity, skills, knowledge and connections of individuals and their communities, and re-envisioning these unique qualities and experiences to revamp larger systems that perpetuate inequalities. It is rooted in the belief that people have existing competencies and that they are capable of learning new skills to identify and address their own concerns. This type of framework does not ignore challenges or spin struggles into strength, rather it identifies and builds on pre-existing capacities to support student empowerment. The type of care shifts from intervention to independence and involves a collaborative process between the person supported by the services and those supporting them.

Evidence suggests that a strength-based approach builds resilience within individuals and communities. Studies have shown that individuals are able to better develop self-determination and trust in their sense of judgment through the provision of services that focus on co-facilitating solutions. Staff are not expected to have all the answers, but rather help generate discussions with individuals and create opportunities to empower individuals and communities.

An interviewee in an access-focused evaluation project conducted by HEQCO described one of the positive effects of using strength-based framing in their community:

We’re seeing a lot more engagement … more people who may not have in the past can trust us. We have more people who are stepping in and taking leadership… [They are] giving back to the community, self-regulating and can manage themselves. There’s a large body of youth who feel empowered to be leaders in the community and inform which services are offered.

PSE institutions may consider using an asset-based community development (ABCD) approach when supporting communities. ABCD is a strength-based approach to community development which considers the collective narrative being told about the neighbourhood and community and values the participation and ownership of the community members in their development. It ultimately reframes the approach in which programs engage with community members — as citizens rather than clients.

Students’ diverse experiences and characteristics are incredibly valuable in postsecondary communities. Many students have firsthand knowledge of their own challenges.; they are often driven by their experiences and bring valuable sensitivity to the issues of equity and justice, as well as possess insightful knowledge of local resources and collaboration opportunities. Strength-based framing can help tap into the rich and diverse perspectives and competencies of students.

Jennifer Han recently completed a research internship at HEQCO and will be starting law school at Queen’s University in the fall.

The following resources offer some practical and insightful ways to implement asset-based community development:

One reply on “Jennifer Han – Shifting the Access Framework of Higher Education: Benefits of a Strength-based Lens”

Thank you, Jennifer Han. I have worked with open educational resources/practices and more recently open recognition from within formal higher education. I have recently encountered asset-based approaches through our institution’s work to become more inclusive. However, this is the first time I have seen an asset-based approach specifically named as a reform for traditional higher education, and it is compelling.

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