Can We Get Free Without Losing Our Souls?

For poor students of color, college contributes to the very inequality people have been taught to believe it erases, argues Blaque Robinson.

February 28, 2020
 
 

“What I know is that a college degree is not a guarantee or a ticket into financial freedom … but I do know that having a college degree, having an education at that level, provides a sense of freedom that I could not get anywhere else.”
-- Monique Dotson, director of curriculum and training, EMERGE Fellowship

EMERGE Fellowship is a dynamic nonprofit in Houston that empowers and prepares high-achieving minority, first-generation, low-income (MFGLI) college students to attend and graduate from selective colleges and universities across the nation. Trisha Cornwell, executive director, calls EMERGE a “talent pipeline.” Ignited by Caroline Hoxby’s research, EMERGE is answering the call to end undermatching, the word used to describe the concerning trend that high-achieving, low-income minority students are more likely than their high-income white counterparts to attend schools that do not match their intellectual capacity.

There is no question that EMERGE, where I worked during a gap year in my studies, has been very successful at changing the trajectory for high achieving MFGLI students in Houston. In less than 10 years, it has expanded from a three-person operation at Houston Independent School District’s Chavez High School to a 47-person staff serving nearly 1,300 high school students across five public school districts and over 1,100 college students across more than 100 selective colleges and universities. For outsiders unfamiliar with the current landscape in higher education, EMERGE is achieving. Yet unbeknownst to Hoxby and others who tout the importance of selective college attendance, undermatching is only part of the battle the organization faces.

In addressing MFGLI undermatching, EMERGE is forcing the U.S. higher education system to look in the mirror. College is the key to social mobility. Without a college degree, it is difficult for most U.S. citizens, and particularly those of color -- not to mention undocumented persons -- to access and maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Yet the equation is more complicated than person plus college equals mobility.

For poor students of color, college contributes to the very inequality we have been taught to believe it erases. Rather than a straightforward equation for everyone, the path to mobility through college is stratified by, among other things, race and class. How do we explain the inversion of “separate but equal” to “kind of equal in access, but separate in experience” more than 60 years after Brown v. Board?

EMERGE’s work shines a bright light on this systemic inequality. At its inception, EMERGE’s staff thought they were entering a long yet manageable quest to make college access equitable. Ten years later, they say they now realize the journey is a maze for which they do not have a complete map. To guide students through the maze, they must correctly help them: 1) want to apply to selective colleges, 2) be eligible to apply to those colleges, 3) apply for and receive the appropriate financial aid to keep them in those colleges, and 4) deal with the campus climates that threaten to heighten impostor syndrome via stereotype threat, lack of visible community and racism. EMERGE’s goal: 100 percent college graduation, 0 percent soul cost.

Given their knowledge of the soul-crushing experiences they themselves had as MFGLI students (e.g., racist roommates, professors who question their capacity, feeling incompatible with campus culture), why does the EMERGE staff engage in this work? Because they, like Brown v. Board parents, are determined to see an education system characterized by equity in access and equity of experience. Brown v. Board gave “equality” of access without ensuring equity.

The consequences of that Supreme Court decision remain with us today. They are evident in the panicked phone calls EMERGE program managers receive from students who cannot grapple with the whiteness of their institutions or have to deal with racist roommates. They are evident when Sandra Nuñez, director of districts, tells me, “Yes, the benefit [of college] is worth the cost as the system stands right now. But is there a way to get to the benefit through a different path? I'm not saying not college, but not all colleges are predominantly white institutions.”

As preparing MFGLI students for campus racial climates rises in priority for EMERGE, college administrators like Shelah Crear at Rice University are trying to change mind-sets on their campuses. Based on her graduate work, extensive years of experience and research on the University of Texas at Austin's success model, Crear works hard to convince university administrators that “it’s not enough to graduate.” As she strives to broaden the concept of success to include a positive college experience, she has created, led and expanded Rice's five-year-old Office of Student Success Initiatives. The office is a one-stop shop for students. The team assesses each student’s needs and either supports them in-house or refers them to other offices on the campus. Staff members often meet with students to talk about time management practices or help them with urgent financial needs. The office also hosts a summer program for students who want to pursue STEM majors at Rice but need extra training in math and science to be successful.

Crear’s office exemplifies a new strategy the two-year-old college success arm of EMERGE is developing: the five-star partnerships model. That model is helping EMERGE get closer to guiding students through the maze of accessing the rewards of higher education without alienating experiences. It is also helping Felicia Martin, managing director of college success at EMERGE, and her staff to refine the list of target schools. Eventually, it will only include only those who are aligned with EMERGE’s philosophy on admissions, financial aid, career services, mental and physical health support services, and first-generation, low-income support offices.

Efforts by EMERGE and Crear are admirable. Yet they are micro-level solutions to a macro-level problem. We need to change the systems that have bestowed the gift of social mobility through college to whites but closed those same doors to other supposedly equal members of society. Pipeline programs, like EMERGE, will continue to be stretched thin, both in their finances and their staff capacity, if university administrators do not begin to take a revolutionary approach to address the inequalities in the practices and policies that the university perpetuates. Inclusion must be the defining marker of campus culture. Universities must collaborate and partner with EMERGE and other organizations committed to equitable access to colleges and universities and contribute to abolishing rather than maintaining structural inequality.

I look forward to the days where the souls of MFGLI students are no longer the price for the freedom that accompanies the acquisition of knowledge.

Bio

Blaque Robinson received her B.A. from Rice University in 2016 and is currently a third-year Ph.D. student in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Sociology. During her gap year, she worked for EMERGE, and her experiences there greatly influenced her research interests. Her research currently focuses on the experiences, mental health and racial performances of black people in predominately white institutions of higher education. She would like to thank the members of the EMERGE fellowship team and Shelah Crear for sharing their stories.

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