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In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action and college admissions, universities across the country have issued statements upholding their commitment to a diverse student body. The university system that employs me, for instance, stated they “value and foster diversity.” Our system’s flagship, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, stated that the court’s ruling would not affect the undergraduate admissions process because that process “assesses the student holistically through a wide range of factors.” The statement goes on to say, “We are extremely proud that a full 28 percent of these students [last year’s incoming class] are from diverse backgrounds.”
The CSU campus where I work is 175 miles to the south of the flagship. While the flagship is 72 percent white (and proud of it), 53 percent of students at the Pueblo campus are nonwhite. And while students at the flagship have a median family income of $122,000 per year, students in Pueblo have a median family income of $68,900.
The CSU Pueblo statement regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t mention what percentage of our students are from “diverse backgrounds,” nor does it mention their socioeconomic status. The Pueblo statement takes the necessity that, in order to balance its own budget, it must accept 94 percent of applicants and turns it into a virtue. “CSU Pueblo takes great pride in our high acceptance rates,” the statement says and, as if it has a choice in the matter, adds, “Rather than boasting how many students we keep out, we boast about the number of students we let in.”
On a national level, some commentators, like Richard D. Kahlenberg, have called for student socioeconomic status to be considered in the admissions process. As Kahlenberg writes, class-conscious admissions could create both racially and socioeconomically diverse classes—and would come at a time when “the income achievement gap has grown to be twice as large as the racial gap.” I personally support a pivot to class-conscious admissions at flagship campuses. Yet, even if flagship campuses were to institute class-conscious admissions, the university system itself might still treat poor, working-class and nonwhite students unequally.
At the campus where I am on the faculty, for instance, the largely working-class and nonwhite students arrive on campus already disadvantaged by the educational system. On average they arrive underprepared and require more resources to succeed than richer, whiter students. Nevertheless, our university system spends almost three times more on student instruction at the flagship campus—$13,700 per student in Fort Collins versus $4,787 in Pueblo. The reasoning behind the inequity is both familiar and untenable: students are supported differently because each campus is required to have its own budget. From my own experience, any suggestion that the budgets be combined for the sake of diversity, equity and inclusion is met with disdain.
Perhaps now is a good time to demand more equitable policies. At this moment when universities are reaffirming their commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, perhaps it is a good time to question the policies that work against these same commitments. In my own context, inequities are supported by a requirement that the poorer, browner campus maintain and balance its own budget. The result is a “ghettoized” campus where disadvantaged students remain disadvantaged. The result, moreover, is a regional comprehensive campus that is treated as separate and unequal.
Other university systems are no better. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes a nationwide disparity between hobbled regional comprehensives and thriving flagships and suggests that regional publics have become a bit uppity over time, with “their own hopes to be more like mini-flagships.” Such hopes, the article tells us, have been harbored by faculty “educated at more-prestigious institutions.” The result has been “mission creep” beyond regional comprehensives’ original “practical missions more akin to those of community colleges.” The presumption is that students at regional comprehensive universities should just get job training—as though working-class students couldn’t possibly become better citizens and people by studying for the sake of learning. And the thing standing in the way of a return to those better days when the poor and working-class got job training are the elite-educated professors who refuse to accept their places.
My own institution has pursued “a renewed commitment to student success, engagement and career preparation.” Behind this rhetoric are policies that provide poor, working-class and nonwhite students a “more practical” education. We are seeing initiatives on campus that sacrifice the quality of education for a quicker and easier-to-attain degree. Students are, for example, encouraged to take CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exams rather than the university’s own general education courses. The result is an emerging view that assumes degree requirements are not opportunities to learn but are instead wastes of time and money.
Students are not the only ones who suffer. The message to faculty is loud and clear: your classes are a nuisance, check off boxes on a degree plan; the university values your teaching so little that they encourage students to avoid taking your classes. It is, then, no wonder faculty morale is low. No wonder students are disengaged. No wonder administrators increasingly regard the faculty with contempt.
One part of solving the problems I have pointed out here is to treat the faculty, staff and students at a regional comprehensive campus exactly the same as you treat faculty, staff and students at a flagship campus. That equity begins by spending the same amount of money and resources per student in both places, by integrating the budgets and by ceasing to ghettoize campuses that serve students of color and the poor and working class. We should not accept this kind of unequal treatment in any aspect of public life—especially not from university systems that claim to be the champions of diversity, equity and inclusion.