My earliest memories are of looking out from the campanile at the University of California at Berkeley below and the blue sky that surrounded the entire San Francisco Bay Area. Sproul Plaza and bongo drums, Telegraph Avenue and the Hare Krishna, Cody’s Books, Kip’s and Top Dog. These early memories were the result of the dreams and aspirations my parents had at the time.
Cal Berkeley had been the beacon of higher education that first brought my parents to this country in the early 1960s. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had been unable to obtain college educations in Mexico, in part because of tradition and also due to the limitations at the time. But both of them were self-taught and made sure that their children attended local universities. My father had older siblings who had completed college by the time he came to the United States. My mother was the first to attend college in her family.
Back then the California dream came in three parts. We had the community colleges that served as the entryway for those who were not ready for a four-year university. There was the Cal State system that served as primarily master’s-level and undergraduate teaching institutions. Then there was the University of California.
Shortly after my parents arrived in California, they enrolled at the local community college. From there they transferred to Berkeley and eventually went on to obtain graduate degrees. My mother received her M.A. in comparative literature and my father eventually received a Ph.D. in the same field.
When the time to apply for college came, I had only two places in mind: Cal and Harvard. I heard early from Cal and was rejected from Harvard. So my choice was clear. In my mind, Cal was the place for me. It was home. But Cal was tough. I remember sitting in my Intro to Chem class with the other 750 students as we watched our professor on TVs that stood above us. Even though the classes were huge, faculty always taught them. And as we moved into upper-division courses these classes grew smaller and smaller to the point of eventually being able to ask our professors questions in groups as small as 50.
My wife, who was the first to go to college in her family, had followed a track to the one my parents used. She heard of college for the first time when she was in high school. When she finished high school, she enrolled at a local community college and transferred to UC Santa Cruz. Eventually, she ended up earning an M.A. in counseling psychology.
My daughter’s experience extended our UC experience even further. She was born in La Jolla just before I defended my Ph.D. dissertation at UC San Diego. Her earliest memories are of UC Santa Barbara, where I had my first job and she used to play with chickens at the Orfalea Children’s Center. She had visited Cal with us numerous times and ventured just south to the forest that surrounded UC Santa Cruz, my wife’s alma mater. Her early memories had spread beyond the campanile to encompass many more campuses.
When we first moved to Houston 10 years ago, the UC system was still embedded into the household fabric. One day my daughter came home and asked me whether we were Aggies or Longhorns. I quickly replied that we were Golden Bears and Banana Slugs. The next day she came back unsatisfied with my answer and asked again. It was a forced-choice question and so I chose Longhorns. UT was the Cal of Texas so it made sense.
But things have changed in the 30 or so years since my wife and I applied to college. My daughter received hundreds of brochures and emails from universities across the country, some of which I never knew existed. The list under consideration expanded to 11, including UT Austin and the University of Houston, but also some private and some Ivy League institutions.
Decision day arrived in three waves. First came UT and Houston, which were automatic due purely to her class rank. Then there was UCLA, a place made dear to my heart much later in life, when my father Guillermo Hernandez became a professor there. The final wave brought us good news: acceptance into Duke University, Davidson College and the University of Pennsylvania. All were excellent institutions with great reputations. But it also brought bad news: rejection from Cal.
My daughter and I visited all of the east coast schools where she had been accepted. Penn reminded me of home. It shared a strong commitment to diversity. Like Cal, it sat on the edge of a city with the inner city not far away. It even carries the name of the state and can be named with a single syllable. And like Cal, the multicultural way of life I had experienced during my childhood in California had penetrated its Ivy walls. You can eat Tortas at Penn and any other type of ethnic food you can dream up. But it is still private. Classes are smaller. The surroundings are beautiful and there is Ben sitting on campus. It was clear to me that her experiences would be radically different than the ones my parents, my wife and I had experienced in college.
My daughter’s decision came swiftly. She left the Golden Bears and Banana Slugs behind. She bypassed the Longhorns and Cougars completely. She has taken her experience of living in the most diverse city of the country with her. Along the way she will create a new identity, a native Californian Latina from Houston who will soon be a Penn student, something I never imagined was possible from the top of the campanile all those years ago.
But what of my California dream that had given all of us this opportunity? Is it dead? Over 70,000 applied to Cal and over 85,000 applied to UCLA this year. The acceptance rate has dropped at both places. The campuses are packed and more and more Californians are leaving the golden state to attend college in other places. This trend has reverberated across the entire county a topic of concern that the dean of admissions at Penn, Eric J. Furda, discussed with me during Quaker days.
The irony of it all was that my entire family was educated at what is arguably the best public university system in the world. My daughter could have followed in our footsteps. She was offered admission to UCLA but no financial aid. In other words, the entire out-of-state cost approximating that of private colleges was to be handled by us. A similar situation occurred at UT. Because Ivy League universities award grants and have a no-loans policy, Penn ended up costing a bit more than UT and much less than UCLA.
The story of our family is not unique. According to a recent book from Suzanne Mettler at Cornell University, college education may actually be reducing the opportunity to create a more level playing field. The ability both economically and socially to climb the academic ladder is becoming more and more restricted. This reality is difficult to reconcile for someone who grew up in the public university system and teaches at one as well. The American higher educational system has opened up doors for my family. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a daughter who will attend an Ivy League university.
However, I cannot help but wonder what the future of public university education holds for those who aspire to climb the academic ladder the way that my family has.
Arturo E. Hernandez is professor of psychology and director of the developmental cognitive neuroscience graduate program at the University of Houston.
On April 22 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, upholding Michigan voters’ 2006 decision to ban race-based preferences in college admissions. Two immediate consequences of this decision are worth clarifying. First, and most obviously, race-based affirmative action remains prohibited at public universities in Michigan, a state whose population is over 14 percent black but whose flagship public school – the University of Michigan – serves a student body that is only 4 percent black. Second, less obvious and less often emphasized, the Supreme Court opted not to overturn the principle that racial diversity on a college campus is a compelling interest, as it yields unique educational benefits.
In legal terms, race-based affirmative action was left untouched by the Schuette decision. In practical terms, however, the decision could have far-reaching impacts. While there is still nothing unconstitutional about affirmative action, there is now nothing unconstitutional about banning it. That means statewide prohibitions in California, Washington, Arizona, and Nebraska will remain in place and additional challenges to race-conscious admissions are likely to surface. Moreover, the Court’s decision in the Michigan case follows a pair of well-publicized campaigns in other states designed to either chip away at remaining affirmative action policies or beat back efforts to revive those that have been outlawed.
These legal and political developments leave higher education leaders in a quandary. Most of us, from Chief Justice John Roberts to John Q. Public, agree racial diversity is a good thing, and worth pursuing. But pursuing it explicitly by considering race in admissions seems to be falling out of favor at the national level and facing voter opposition in some states.
Fortunately, promising alternatives are gaining traction. While it is self-evident that the best way to achieve racial diversity is to select on race, granting college applicants additional consideration on the basis of socioeconomic hardship may represent the next chapter of affirmative action. Class-based admissions preferences have two particularly attractive features. First, they can cushion the racial blow of an affirmative action ban by capitalizing on the overlap between race and socioeconomic status. Just as important, they can boost college access for disadvantaged students of all races who have overcome obstacles few other college applicants have faced.
Research on class-based affirmative action is still in its infancy, but the results thus far seem promising. In nine states where race-conscious policies have been banned and class-based alternatives have taken hold, racial diversity at selective colleges has rebounded after an initial drop. My own research at the University of Colorado demonstrated that class-based admissions considerations – when sufficiently nuanced and faithfully implemented – can maintain racial diversity and identify applicants who will perform much better in college than their raw academic credentials suggest. Promoting this sort of experimentation seems to be what the Supreme Court has in mind, as last month’s plurality decision reiterated that “universities can and should draw on the most promising aspects of race-neutral alternatives as they develop.”
It should also be emphasized that although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Schuette homed in on admissions decisions, solutions to the economic and racial divide in higher education need not maintain such a narrow focus. For example, the University of California system has developed robust outreach programs to connect with high-achieving low-income middle school students and encourage them to apply to selective universities (nationally, more than 100,000 such students every year do not apply to selective schools). Like class-based affirmative action, outreach is not a diversity panacea. But without talented low-income applicants, colleges will face a supply problem that no admissions solution – race-based or class-based – can overcome.
I ultimately support considering class and race jointly in admissions as the most obvious, efficient, and logical way to boost socioeconomic and racial diversity. But to the extent the Schuette ruling emboldens new state-level campaigns to ban traditional affirmative action, university leaders should begin investigating workable alternatives that suit their schools’ missions. Beginning that process now will serve selective colleges well as the political landscape continues to change.
Matthew Gaertner is a senior research scientist in the Center for College & Career Success at Pearson.
Over the years, we wanted to learn more about why young people who start college don’t earn degrees in greater numbers. We had reams of data on the issue, but we wanted to hear from college leaders — presidents, chancellors, and deans. From their campus-level perspective, what were the biggest barriers preventing students from completing their postsecondary educations?
Time and again higher education leaders answered that question by lamenting the poor academic preparation students received in high school. This complaint was most prevalent at community colleges, where nearly 9 out of 10 leaders said students arrived unprepared for college-level work, but poor high school preparation was also cited by more than a third of four-year college leaders.
So, is this view an attack on high school educators? Not at all. We see this as a reason for K-12 and higher education leaders to work together on behalf of students. It’s exactly why higher education leaders must engage with the Common Core State Standards — the biggest and boldest effort in a generation to ensure every student is prepared to succeed in college and the work force.
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For too long we have taught students to standards that don’t match the knowledge and skills they needed to succeed after high school. The Common Core State Standards were designed to address that by providing rigorous learning goals in English language arts/literacy and mathematics for all students, no matter where they live, or what they plan to do after high school. The standards were adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with districts and schools now using them. In too many places, though, districts and states are doing this without the help, guidance or political muscle of higher education leaders.
The new standards move far beyond memorizing facts and figures. They challenge our students to develop a deeper understanding of subject matter, to think critically, and to apply what they are learning to the real world. The goal is to ensure that any student meeting these standards will be prepared to meet the challenges of first-year college courses. This will be a welcome change for higher education leaders, because it will free colleges to focus on, well, college.
Specifically, the full and faithful implementation of the Common Core could all but eliminate the need for colleges to provide academic remediation to students enrolling in college immediately after graduating from high school. Also called “developmental education,” this remediation costs taxpayers $7 billion every year. It’s estimated that only 17 percent of students who take a developmental reading course go on to earn a four-year degree.
In Kentucky, after the state became the first to adopt the Common Core State Standards in 2011, the percent of Kentucky high school graduates ready for college and career increased from 38 percent to 47 percent in a single year, and a year later it hit 54 percent.
Instead of spending the first semester or two in college in developmental education classes, and paying for those non-credit bearing courses, students should be able to immediately start earning credits toward a degree. This is no small thing, as the typical student at a four-year college needs nearly five years to graduate and then leaves with an average of $29,000 in student loan debt.
Reducing the time it takes students to earn a college degree benefits everyone. It saves students money. It makes it more likely that they will graduate. It ensures a better investment for taxpayers, with a higher return on their investment of public funds. It means colleges can reduce the amount of money they spend on students who are now taking five or more years to graduate, and can focus those resources on improving the learning environment and ultimately the completion rates for all students.
Another significant benefit of the new standards is that they present a long-overdue and purposeful link between K-12 and higher education. The standards provide both systems with an opportunity for serious, ongoing collaboration. Right now, that collaboration isn’t happening nearly often enough. Last fall, Hart Research Associates and edBridge Partners surveyed 205 district superintendents and college university system leaders. Only one-third of those surveyed said they collaborate “extremely or very effectively” with each other.
This is a real missed opportunity. Through the work of our grantees and partners, we have seen how close collaboration can yield amazing results. According to Complete College America, the California State University (CSU) system helped add a series of college readiness questions to the state’s 11th-grade exam. After students take the test, they are told whether they are on track for college-level classes in the CSU system. CSU has also designed transitional readiness courses and professional development opportunities that help high school teachers work with unprepared students to get them ready for college. In addition, 10 states and the District of Columbia have aligned their high school graduation requirements with their state university admission requirements.
Higher education leaders and faculty in several institutions are working to align college eligibility and admissions practices and many states are also working to align first-year college courses with the new high school course expectations. But there is a great and urgent need for higher education to do more because the standards are under attack from some quarters.
In many states, some groups are working to purposefully undermine them with misinformation that isn’t about quality. Of great importance to higher education, in particular, is the standards have been designed to ensure young people master the essential skills and knowledge they need in higher education and the workplace. The higher education community is in a unique position to reinforce what matters most, affirming the quality of the Common Core State Standards and attesting that the standards are aligned to better prepare students for credit-bearing courses.
On a more general level, some critics continue to claim that the Common Core State Standards are an improper federal intervention in education; that educators were not sufficiently involved in their development; and that the standards dictate curriculum. Here, too, the members of the higher education community can help to combat misinformation by citing their firsthand evidence to the contrary, or by helping to direct attention to the extensive public evidence and information about the standards’ actual origin, development and content. By engaging actively in the debate around the Common Core, higher education leaders can inform it with their expertise, participate in and ensure the full, faithful and effective implementation of the Common Core, and help supporters of improved education and educational pipelines stay the course.
The Common Core State Standards should be a watershed moment in our nation’s efforts to improve the lives of young people. The new standards will be critical in determining how well our students succeed in K-12, and whether they are ready to succeed in college, the work force, and beyond.
We must ensure this essential work is not derailed. To be successful, we need higher education leaders to engage directly, to learn about the Common Core State Standards, and join the debate. Why? Because they are in the best position to help Americans understand that rigorous standards like these are needed for our students so they succeed in high school, through college, and into their careers.
Dan Greenstein is the director of postsecondary success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vicki Phillips is director of education at the foundation.
President Obama has said that even with a divided Congress, he has access to the phone and the pen. The White House summit on access was an example of what could be accomplished after phone calls, bringing together leaders from over 100 institutions to strengthen commitments to increasing college opportunity for low-income students.
One phone call that the president should make now is to U.S.News and World Report, asking editors to include socioeconomic diversity in more meaningful ways in their college and university rankings. If the Obama administration wants greater commitment on the part of colleges and universities to spend additional resources on financial aid, it needs to create greater incentives for them to do so. Changing the rankings would be a step in the right direction. U.S. News claims that its ranking already does this. But, if this were in fact the case, the rankings wouldn’t change as much as they do when a direct measure of socioeconomic diversity is added. And of course, the federal government could have a more direct impact by tying access to federal subsidies more directly to success on socioeconomic diversity.
Today, any dollar spent on need-based financial aid receives little credit in the U.S. News rankings, and also means not spending it on things that do count, such as small classes or faculty resources. Since most colleges include a commitment to the diversity of their student bodies as part of their mission, such a change should not be objectionable.
What would be the impact? The table below shows the rankings of the top 20 (plus ties) of national universities and of liberal arts colleges, according to U.S.News and World Report's latest rankings. A second ranking for each group of institutions is listed, which includes two variables that represent socioeconomic diversity. The first is the share of Pell Grant recipients. This is reported as the difference between the actual share of Pell Grant recipients and what would be expected given the academic selectivity of the school (measured simply as the share of students from the bottom two quintiles of the income distribution with the required SAT scores in the national pool). A positive number means the school is doing really well by low-income students. The second measure is the share of students on need-based financial aid, again relative to what would be expected given the school’s selectivity.
In this case, the share of students in the national pool from the bottom 80 percent of the income distribution with adequate SATs is used to measure what would be expected given the selectivity of the school. The rankings change when socioeconomic diversity is included. (Note: I’ve just included the rank of each school on the two measures of socioeconomic diversity and given them a 25 percent weight. U.S. News would do it in a different way, but the fact that including these variables would change the rankings would remain the case.)
There is much criticism of the U.S. News rankings, including that any unique ranking of schools based on a variety of variables can’t possible indicate for any individual student and family whether the college is a good match. But these rankings don’t seem to be going away and they do create incentives for schools. If the Obama administration is serious about increasing the incentives for schools to allocate resources to financial aid, encouraging U.S.News and World Report to change its rankings would help. A phone call from President Obama just might accomplish this.
1st-time undergrads receiving
local or institutional grants
During January’s White House opportunity summit, policy makers and higher education leaders announced over 100 new initiatives designed to bolster first-generation and low-income students’ college success. While students who overcome the odds to gain access to college bring with them significant grit and resilience, the road through college is often a rocky one.
First Lady Michelle Obama described the obstacles that first-generation and low-income students commonly confront. No stranger to these challenges, she said:
You’re in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don’t see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes, and food, and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you call home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn’t get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one.
Even among the select group that make it to college, first-generation and low-income students, on average, find it harder to fit in, receive lower grades, and drop out at higher rates than do students from higher income backgrounds with college-educated parents (i.e., continuing-generation students). Study after study demonstrates that the financial, academic, and psychological barriers that these students encounter can significantly undermine their performance.
The summit shined the national policy spotlight on this persistent social class achievement gap. Our own and others’ research shows that these feelings of exclusion and difference that the First Lady described are key factors that fuel the gap. While all students tend to question whether they belong and have what it takes to succeed, these concerns are magnified for first-generation and low-income students because of the mismatch they experience as they enter this “whole new world” of higher education.
Our research provides compelling evidence that talking about social class equips first-generation and low-income students to succeed. In our recent study, published in Psychological Science, we invited first-generation and continuing-generation students at the beginning of the school year to attend a one-hour program designed to help them transition to college. Unbeknownst to them, half of the students attended a “difference-education” program while the other half attended a “standard” program. In both programs, newly minted first-years at an elite university listened to a diverse panel of junior and senior students talk about their transition to college, challenges they faced, and how they found success. In the difference-education program, however, panelists’ stories also included a discussion of how their social class backgrounds mattered in college. In the standard program, panelists did not reveal their social class.
We found that the difference-education program closed the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation students. First-generation students had higher year-end grade-point averages and better learned to take advantage of college resources that could help them succeed — like seeking mentorship and extra help from professors — than their peers that participated in the standard program. An added bonus was that all students who participated in the difference-education program — both first- and continuing-generation — gained a deeper understanding of how students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives mattered in college than their peers in the standard program. They also experienced a smoother college transition — they were less stressed, felt like they fit in socially, and were more connected to their home and school.
When we talk with educators and administrators about the success of this research, many are inspired to start a program like ours and reap the rewards; yet, they also voice trepidation. What happens if talking about social class leads students to feel threatened? What if students are not receptive to the message? What if we get accused of stereotyping or stigmatizing students because of their backgrounds?
These are understandable concerns. Talking about difference is threatening to many people, especially since Americans don’t like to talk about social class. Drawing on key insights from social psychology and multicultural education, engaging students in a conversation about how their different backgrounds matter can be instructive and empowering for all involved. But, you need to do it in the right way. Below we outline key guidelines that educators should follow:
Show how all students can experience college differently – the success of this type of program hinges on framing it as relevant to all students, rather than as a “diversity initiative” directed only at disadvantaged students who need extra help. A unique benefit of our approach was that all students learned about how their backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. We recommend that both the senior students who share their stories and the incoming students who participate in the program are first- and continuing-generation. First, it will ensure that first-generation students do not feel “singled out” or stigmatized as students in need of extra help. Second, it will help students learn about each other’s different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences. Representing difference as a normal part of the college experience — and life, more generally — is a crucial lesson in today’s increasingly diverse world.
Start with a solid foundation — the college transition is rife with uncertainty. Our own work and that of others consistently shows that these types of transitional programs benefit students the most when they are conducted during or immediately after students’ first weeks on campus. Students’ initial social and academic experiences are the foundation upon which the rest of their experiences will be built. Give them a strong foundation right away.
Let senior students share their own stories — incoming students need to be able to see themselves and hear their own voices reflected in the stories the older students tell. To do this, select a diverse group of students who take pride in their backgrounds and are comfortable discussing their social class (in addition to race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on). This sends a strong signal that difference is a source of pride and strength rather than shame.
Don’t be afraid of the negative (but offset it with the positive) — incoming students need to hear the real stuff, not an idealized version of what other students have gone through. First-generation students confront a lot of adversity during the college transition. For example, many struggle to choose a major, identify a future career path, or reconcile their life back home with their new life in college. They need to learn about the obstacles they are likely to face, but also need to understand that each obstacle is surmountable when they use the right strategies and rely on their resilience.
Deliver a powerful (but subtle) message — we know that Americans don’t like to talk about class. We recommend giving students a subtle nudge to show them how it matters — through hearing other students’ stories — rather than telling them directly that class is something that they need to watch out for. Encourage them to think about and apply what they learn to their own lives and let them come to their own conclusions. Give students the chance to process the information and make it their own – for example, by writing an essay or making a video about what they learned to share with next year’s incoming students.
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for success in our increasingly diverse and multicultural world. When done the right way, transitional programs have the potential to help to make this “whole new world” of higher education a less alienating, and more welcoming place, for all students — especially for those who need it the most.
Nicole M. Stephens, MarYam G. Hamedani and Mesmin Destin
Nicole M. Stephens is associate professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
MarYam G. Hamedani is associate director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University.
Mesmin Destin is an assistant professor in the department of psychology and the School of Education & Social Policy at Northwestern University.