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Closing Higher Ed’s Equity Gaps

Colleges and universities need to reaffirm their commitment to equity.

October 11, 2022

Did you happen to see Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Princeton University Is the World’s First Perpetual Motion Machine”?

The financial journalist Felix Salmon sums up Gladwell’s argument with just seven words: “Princeton isn’t free—but it could be.” Princeton is so rich that it can “can operate with no outside financial support whatsoever.” Princeton’s endowment is so large that “it’s capable of funding itself in perpetuity, even without research grants or tuition income.”

As Axios explains, “The school’s entire annual operating expense in 2021 was $1.86 billion, which is less than 5% of the value of its endowment.”

Princeton’s defense: “Operating expenses don’t include hundreds of millions in capital expenditures the endowment provides every year to fund things like research equipment and facilities.” It goes on, “Even a few decades ago, no one could have fully anticipated future investments in computer science, quantum computing, or climate science—fields where Princeton is now a leader.”

Is Princeton truly a leader in these fields? Really? It’s certainly not Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon or Caltech. Does Princeton have robust graduate programs in those areas? No, its programs in those areas are tiny. Nor does it have a major nanoscience facility. The fact is that Princeton is not a research powerhouse in the applied sciences.

Not to pick on Princeton—let’s shift attention to Harvard. In 1977, when the university’s endowment stood at $2 billion, its freshman class was 1,585. In 2021, after the endowment had risen to $53 billion, the first-year class consisted of 1,675 freshmen.

In 2021, Harvard University handed out 39 bachelor’s degrees in English language and literature, 118 in history, and 22 in philosophy. A survey conducted in 2020 found that just 4 percent of Harvard seniors planned to enter public service or work at a nonprofit.

As Evan Mandery, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, points out in Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, any serious accounting of American higher education needs to reckon with three dirty little secrets:

As we know, the divisions that Mandery describes are replicated at many public institutions.

There are gated majors, typically in computer science, engineering and nursing, and, at my institution, business, that require students to earn a minimum GPA in an introductory course in order to declare a major. As Preston Cooper, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, explains, “Three-quarters of academic departments at the top 25 public universities impose a restriction on declaring the major” in computer science, economics, finance, mechanical engineering and nursing.

The result: to reduce the number of students who earn majors in those fields by 15 percentage points, exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities. Why do departments impose such restrictions? Capacity constraints are a factor, but so is a desire to raise a department’s rankings.

There are also the very large weed-out courses (or simply large lecture classes, like my 400-person sections of the U.S. history survey) without discussion labs or supplemental instruction sessions, that have outsize DFW rates.

The resounding demands for equity within higher education heard far and wide during the summer of 2020 have, I fear, faded. The 2016 pledge by elite institutions to boost enrollment of low-income students “added just 7,713 such students between 2015 and 2021”—nowhere near the 50,000 promised by the American Talent Initiative.

Inequities pervade American higher education. As a recent report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce points out:

  • A kindergartner from an affluent family with bottom-half test scores has a seven in 10 chance of being affluent as a young adult, while a disadvantaged kindergartner with top-half test scores only has a three in 10 chance.
  • “A student’s chance of completing college is correlated to their family’s socioeconomic status. Even disadvantaged students with top-half scores have a lower chance of completing #college than advantaged students with bottom-half scores.”
  • “Students with less social and financial capital are ruthlessly sorted into colleges with fewer resources and, as a result, have lower chances of graduating and finding good jobs.”
  • “Advantaged students have safety nets to keep them on track while their less-advantaged peers do not and as a result, are more likely to fall behind and stay behind.”

Expressed in statistical terms: a Black student with above-median 10th-grade math scores is 22 percent less likely than a white student to earn a college degree and 43 percent less likely than an Asian student. Latino/as with above-median math scores are 46 percent less like to earn a degree than a comparable white student and 78 percent less than an Asian student.

The Georgetown Center describes the implications of these statistics in blunt terms: “Equally talented students don’t get the same chance to be all that they can be.”

I couldn’t agree more strongly with the center’s argument:

“All children deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. But many disadvantaged children don’t have access to the same community support and enrichment activities as their affluent peers.”

Here’s some of the center’s advice:

  • Improve and expand high school counseling to ensure students from low-income backgrounds and underrepresented groups can make informed decisions after graduation and receive the support services they need to make the transition into postsecondary education and the workforce successfully.
  • Embed “career exploration and access to high-quality work experiences” within high school and colleges to help students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds thrive economically.

I’d add the following:

  • Identify and address barriers to equity, including high-DFW weed-out courses, course unavailability, impediments to credit transfer and complicated degree requirements.
  • Embrace course designs, pedagogies and assessment strategies that support equity, including approaches that are interactive, participatory, inclusive, experiential and inquiry-, problem- and project-based.
  • Implement a tiered system of academic support, including access to bridge programs, tutoring, study groups, science and math learning centers, and supplemental instruction sections of roadblock courses.
  • Ensure financial support for students from lower-income backgrounds that covers the full cost of attendance.

Equity needs to be more than a floating signifier or empty cipher. It’s not something that can be achieved through good intentions or bureaucratic expansion.

Equity-mindedness requires institutions to focus, first and foremost, on the barriers to academic success that function in discriminatory ways. These include recruitment practices that fail to target students from lower-income and underrepresented backgrounds. Admissions policies that downplay work experience and distance traveled. Obstacles to community college transfer. Pedagogies and assessments that heighten stereotype threat. Practices biased against part-time, commuting and older students.

Perry Miller, the great scholar of 17th-century Puritanism, described a curious cycle in American thought, with episodes of awakening inevitably followed by declension. We, I fear, are living through such a declension, perhaps out of pandemic-induced exhaustion but more likely reflecting a commitment to equity that proved to be only paper-thin.

I live my life according to a series of mantras, one of which is “being radical means being radical where you are.” Equity needs to be pursued at all levels: on a national and state level through greater equity in funding across institutions, in our college and university policies and practices, but also in our classrooms, where we need to embrace universal principles of design, a Deweyesque emphasis on active and experiential learning, and a commitment to providing the support, mentoring and constructive feedback that students need to succeed academically and after graduation.

Each and every one of us can contribute to equity in our own domain. If you are an instructor, be intentional in your teaching. Incorporate marginalized voices and perspectives in your classes. Adopt a pedagogy of inclusion that is culturally sensitive but doesn’t hesitate to tackle tough issues. Above all, be caring, approachable, empathetic, accommodating and supportive.

Remember: equity may not be everyone’s assigned job, but it’s everyone’s responsibility.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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