AAC&U News, June/July 2016

The Case for Bolstering Socioeconomic Diversity at Elite Institutions

Socioeconomic diversity at elite colleges shouldn’t be considered a benefit given to students from low-income families—instead, it should be recognized for what it is: a boon to both low-income students and wealthy ones, writes Frank Bruni in the New York Times. A campus composed of students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds provides critical opportunities to students who have traditionally been excluded from elite higher education. But it is also “a plus for richer students, who are then exposed to a breadth of perspectives that lies at the heart of the truest, best education,” Bruni writes. “With the right coaxing and mixing on campus, they become more fluent in diversity, which has professional benefits as well as the obvious civic and moral ones.”

Bruni points to several elite colleges and universities that have recently incorporated practices to strengthen the mix of economic backgrounds represented on campus. Amherst College was this year’s winner of the $1 million Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, awarded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which honors an elite college or university working to address the disparity in on-campus representation of wealthy and low-income students. At Amherst, administrators have given priority to transfer students from community colleges, increased recruiting efforts at schools in traditionally underserved areas, and bolstered resources to aid students in taking on opportunities—such as unpaid internships—that have historically been feasible primarily for students from higher-income families.

Other elite institutions are also implementing strategies to increase enrollment of traditionally underserved students. Some are giving less weight to admission criteria such as standardized test scores and number of Advanced Placement classes taken; these metrics typically favor students from schools in prosperous neighborhoods without taking into account any context. More than ninety schools have recently joined forces as the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a group with its own application system that offers free online resources intended for students who don’t have access to robust guidance from parents or school officials. Bruni notes the biases inherent in the conventional admissions process, arguing that “it smiles on children of the school’s alumni. It rewards the sorts of frequent interactions with a school or its alumni that an economically privileged kid is more likely to have. Poor kids often don’t get the same preparation for the SAT or ACT or take the exam as many times as rich kids.”

Ultimately, Bruni argues, striving for greater socioeconomic diversity on the campuses of elite institutions is an obligation that underscores the fundamental—though often unfulfilled—goals of higher education in the United States: to provide expanded opportunities for all, while also offering an experience that broadens each student’s worldview. Furthermore, Bruni maintains, colleges and universities must recognize “the reality that real learning and a real preparation for citizenship demand the intersection of different life stories and different sensibilities. Colleges should be making that happen.”

Read the full essay in the New York Times. AAC&U offers online and print resources on diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence, addressing topics that include the educational benefits of diversity and socioeconomic equity in higher education.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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