AAC&U News, August 2016
Perspectives

Expanding Opportunities for all Students Demands Creative Solutions

The path to expanded opportunities is notoriously steep for college and university students who come from traditionally underserved spheres—including students who cannot afford to take unpaid summer internships and students who have children, write Darren Walker and Jamie Merisotis and Anne-Marie Slaughter in respective op-eds in the New York Times.

Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, points to the critical work experience and networking opportunities provided by summer internships, noting that “a plum internship may alter a young person’s career trajectory.” These prospects, however, are limited to a rather narrow sliver of college and university students—those who both can afford to spend a summer working at a potentially unpaid internship and, in many cases, whose families and acquaintances have the connections to help them land a coveted internship. “We often hear that success is ‘all about the people’ you know—as if it’s just a matter of equal-opportunity relationship building,” writes Walker. “We rarely talk about how one knows them, or about the privilege that has become a prerequisite to knowing the right people.”

Lack of access to internships hurts not only students’ job prospects, but also employers who are limiting the scope of their potential employees to just those who come from affluence. “By shutting out” lower-income students “from entry-level experiences in certain fields, entire sectors engineer long-term deficits of much-needed talent and perspective. In other words, we’re all paying the price for unpaid internships,” Walker writes.

The solution? Walker suggests, to begin with, that more organizations pay their interns—an option that he admits may not be feasible for nonprofits. Walker points to a proposal made by researchers at the Economic Policy Institute and Demos to use already-existing student aid programs to give internship grants to low-income students. But even more necessary, Walker contends, is a change in perspective on the part of employers—the adoption of a deeply ingrained belief that socioeconomic diversity is an asset worth seeking out.

Merisotis and Slaughter highlight the difficulties facing a different group of underserved students: parents. Nearly five million undergraduate students have children, but “more than half of these student-parents leave college without finishing after six years,” write Merisotis and Slaughter. “Their lack of a degree essentially locks them out of jobs with benefits like on-site child care, paid leave and telecommuting that make it possible to be effective workers and parents.” Creating an undergraduate experience that is more conducive to the needs of student-parents would go a long way toward setting these students up for future success, Merisotis and Slaughter contend.

How to do this? Merisotis and Slaughter outline several ideas: awarding financial aid at regular intervals throughout the school year; providing on-campus child care; and bolstering flexible degree-granting programs that emphasize evaluation based on mastery of a subject rather than credit or classroom hours.

Walker, Merisotis, and Slaughter all point to one primary lesson: Critical opportunities for educational and professional advancement should be widely available to all students. Traditionally underserved students, who may not have the time, money, or networking connections that affluent and otherwise privileged students do, deserve the same access to these opportunities as other students, and companies and schools can and should be pursuing innovative strategies to make these opportunities more widely available.

For more on these subjects, see AAC&U’s previously published articles on “Reducing Internship Inequity” and “Strategies for Student-Parent Success,” or visit AAC&U’s website for resources on diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence.

About AAC&U News

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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