A student at Virginia's Sweet Briar College has issued an apology for placing signs that said "white only" or "colored" at various places in a dormitory. The student said that she was trying to make a point about the lingering impact of racism on society, but many students interpreted the signs as simply more racism.
Oklahoma State University students created a sign for their institution's football game against Florida State University (team name "Seminoles") that read in part "Send 'Em 'Home #Trail of Tears," The Tulsa World reported. The sign went viral online, infuriating many for apparently mocking the Trail of Tears, which refers to the expulsion of many Indian tribes from their lands in the Southeast. The Oklahoma State official account originally made a tweet with the sign a favorite, but later apologized and asked that the sign be taken down.
One of the students who was involved published an apology in which he said: "Though we did not set out to hurt or offend anyone when we made our banner, I see that it did just that. Referencing the Trail of Tears in such a flippant and disrespectful manner was insensitive and wrong, and I make no defense for our having had such a lapse in judgment. I apologize for our mistake. I am truly sorry."
As affirmative action continues to backslide, support for economic equality is growing. Could these narratives be combined to fuel new ideas that take advantage of this common ground?
Much is known about the racial achievement gap in higher education. Large, persistent gaps in degree attainment rates between Asian students and white students on one hand, and black, Latino, and Native American students on the other, help explain how the U.S.’s overall attainment rate fell from first in the world to 11th. Yet only recently has the economic achievement gap – a present-tense manifestation of what President Obama has called a “relentless, decades-long trend” of growing inequality – entered the public consciousness.
Research demonstrates that the wealthiest 25 percent of Americans are filling nearly 75 percent of the seats at the 193 most selective U.S. universities – which operate as informal gateways to America’s leadership class – while the poorest 25 percent of Americans fill only 5 percent of these seats. Indeed, the gap in test scores between wealthy students and poor students is almost twice what it is between black and white students. In other words, the opportunity gap in America today may be more about class than it is about race.
At the same time, support for the most direct approach to closing the racial achievement gap in higher education – affirmative action – remains on the decline. Twelve states, where roughly 30 percent of the entire U.S. high school population resides, have outlawed affirmative action over the past two decades.
This creep toward colorblindness seemed incremental and sporadic until last summer, when a near-unanimous U.S. Supreme Court tightened the vise on affirmative action by introducing a new legal framework in Fisher v. University of Texas. Though the only lower court to interpret this new framework held that affirmative action at universities in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi is still permissible, it remains to be seen how other courts will interpret the high court’s exacting new rules.
We believe that there is considerable opportunity to be mined from the crisis surrounding affirmative action, as populations that benefit from racial preferences also stand to benefit from socioeconomic preferences. Indeed, America’s twin achievement gaps could be squarely addressed by a number of “two for one” policies that are creatively tailored to take advantage of this common ground. Such an approach is not new: the federal TRIO programs – 50 years old this month – used first-generation and low-income status along with academic need in order to determine eligibility.
So, what can we do now? We should start by measuring the economic and racial achievement gaps as they exist today. One way to do that is to focus on the share of undergraduate students who receive federal Pell Grants, which go to low-income students. In Virginia, the disparities in this measure of diversity are striking: less than 20 percent of students at William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and four other public four-year colleges receive Pell Grants; at Virginia State and Norfolk State, two-thirds of students receive these grants. Since many people who work outside higher education would not associate Pell Grants with low-income status, universities could be required to report the economic make-up of their student bodies to the U.S. Department of Education, as they already do with race. Colleges and universities currently disclose their net prices within income bands, and also have net price calculators available on their websites, but the extent to which this information is used by prospective students and families is unclear.
Once we know the extent of these economic achievement gaps, universities could take steps to close them by enrolling a more economically diverse student body. Indeed, some colleges and universities are taking steps to close the gaps both in admissions and in completion. Others should follow their lead. This would require that the institution adopt an admissions system that assesses applicants for their economic and racial diversity. Then, a university could implement an admissions formula that values economic and racial diversity, putting the new measurements to work.
New research featured in "The Future of Affirmative Action," from Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, demonstrates that an admissions plan that measures and then values socioeconomic status, place (geographic diversity), and race will produce both higher economic diversity and higher racial diversity than either race alone (affirmative action) or class alone. Thus, an admissions plan that measures and then values these three variables together works best at closing the economic and racial achievement gaps simultaneously.
An even more nuanced approach to evaluating applicants has been developed by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC-Berkeley. Under the institute’s Opportunity Enrollment Model, each applicant is given an “opportunity score” that is informed, in part, by the applicant’s neighborhood, including the neighborhood’s poverty rate, job growth rate, and proximity to employment, health care, and public parks, among many other factors.
Because the Opportunity Enrollment Model is technically race-neutral – it reflects the racial makeup of the applicant’s neighborhood, not the race of the individual applicant – universities could likely rely on opportunity scores to identify economically and racially diverse students in states where affirmative action has been outlawed. In order to help these ideas along, universities and nonprofits could forge partnerships with mission-aligned members of the tech community, who may be able to develop software and databases that help implement such models.
Government has a role to play, too. State governments could reward universities that adopt admissions models geared toward closing the achievement gaps, and could tie state subsidies to a university’s economic and racial diversity rates. The proposed federal college ratings system could reward universities in much the same way: if the ratings system’s “access” measurement (one-third of its “access, affordability, and outcomes” variables) is defined to include economic and racial diversity, then the greater the relative value placed on the “access” prong, the greater the incentive for universities to help close the achievement gaps.
A less circuitous option for using public dollars to close the achievement gaps may involve state and federal governments increasing their direct investments in minority-serving institutions, which educate a disproportionate number of both low-income students and students of color.
Altogether, in a field rife with opportunities for policy reform, the economic and racial achievement gaps rarely command the narrative attention they deserve. But as demand for economic equality rises – and support for affirmative action falls – a new narrative is quickly taking shape. Let’s greet it with new, efficient ideas that kill two birds with one stone.
David Bergeron is vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress and former acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. Scott Greytak is of counsel with Campinha Bacote LLC in Washington.
The American Sociological Association has approved a new set of gender categories by which members can classify themselves for organizational purposes. After some debate, the association decided on the following:
Transgender Male/Transgender Man
Transgender Female/Transgender Woman
Preferred Identity (in addition to or not listed above) _____________
Prefer not to state
Members will select “all that apply.” John Curtis, director of research for the association, said the categories were recommended by a committee tasked with coming up with terminology that satisfied its members, and that the ACA Council recently approved those recommendations. Last year, some sociologists said that the association’s existing group of terms -- female, male and prefer not to answer -- weren’t inclusive enough. But there was disagreement as to which new terms were best, particularly over one proposal to adopt the term “other,” as some sociologists thought that was marginalizing. The categories will be in effect by the 2016 membership year.
The University of Colorado at Boulder has rejected a plan to use spellings consistent with the Arapaho tribe for the names of two dormitories, The Daily Camera reported. Supporters wanted to use the language of the tribe to name the buildings Nowoo3 Hall and Houusoo Hall. A spokesman for the university said: "While some faculty members expressed their preference to use the Arapaho language, the CU-Boulder administration has remained committed to the original proposal of using the English spellings. We believe these names will be more easily recognized and referenced to by students, visitors and emergency responders."
Mills College is adopting a new, more open approach on admissions for transgender students. To date, most women's colleges have rejected applicants who were born men and may still legally be men, but who identify as women. Mills will now accept them as well as applicants who do not identify as male or female, but who were designated as female at birth, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. Mills also said it would not accept undergraduate applicants who were born female, but who legally have become male. Like many women's colleges, Mills will continue to educate students admitted under its policies but whose gender identity changes after enrollment.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday announced that it is charging Kent State University with violating federal law by denying a student with panic disorder permission to keep a therapy dog in a university apartment,The Plain Dealer reported. A statement from HUD said: "Many people with disabilities rely on therapy animals to enhance their quality of life. The Fair Housing Act protects their right to a service animal and HUD is committed to taking action whenever the nation's fair housing laws are violated." A university statement said that Kent State would respond at "an appropriate time," and that it was committed to helping students succeed.
The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa has been celebrating a sorority rush that included black women (something that hasn't historically been the case). But the celebration was interrupted Tuesday by word that a sister of one sorority, Chi Omega, had posted a racist photo on social media, in which three white women were seen using a slur to boast that they had not pledged any black women, AL.com reported. In fact, the sorority had pledged two black women and kicked out the woman who posted the photo.