Can Elite Institutions Serve Under-Served, Non-Traditional Students?Marybeth Gasman | Director of Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, University of Pennsylvania
The nation’s most selective—or what some would call elite—institutions have a long history of educating mainly wealthy, white men. This is changing, or at least the white and men part. Elite colleges and universities are slowly becoming more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender, and they will surely continue this trend as the nation’s demographics change.
However, it is much more difficult for these institutions to be more inclusive with regard to socio-economic status. You might wonder why. The main reason is that low-income students—with some exceptions—do not have access to resources that can prepare them for admission to elite institutions. Most low-income traditional-aged students don’t have access to college prep courses, dual enrollment opportunities or four years of math and language. This access is what is often needed to secure admission at elite colleges.
In order to move the bar in terms of the socio-economic diversity of elite institutions, these colleges and universities need to work with the K-12 systems in their communities to strengthen the curriculum for all students. But few are willing to do this important work to make systemic change.
Although I know that there are faculty and staff at elite colleges and universities that care deeply about all students, and provide enhanced care to those students that might not feel welcomed initially, there is so much more than can be done to make highly selective institutions more inclusive.
I worry that faculty are not prepared for the increased racial and ethnic as well as socio-economic diversity in their classes in the 21st century. Many faculty members at these types of institutions are from similar backgrounds—their parents are well-educated and they are from middle to upper middle class homes. It can be very difficult to relate to students from low-income homes when you have no idea what they face, and layering on racial microaggressions students deal with can make a student’s life even more difficult to understand. I wonder if faculty members consider the many dimensions of their students when crafting a syllabus: Do they make sure to have voices that represent many perspectives? Do they care? Do they see the need and the resulting empowerment that stems from seeing oneself in the curriculum?
I also worry that campus administrators, although interested in bringing in a more diverse class, fail to realize that with that diversity needs to come changes in the culture at their institutions. Some traditions may be offensive and deeply rooted in a controversial history that is off-putting or strange to the increasingly diverse student body. In some cases, traditions might need to be explained and in others, they might need to be ceased. In order to engage a more diverse student body and more under-represented students, it might be necessary to make fundamental changes on campus. It’s easy to understand that you have to eat healthy and exercise to be fit, right? Well, if you desire a healthy campus, you have to put in the effort and sometimes that effort is a change in behavior.
I worry that students from wealthy backgrounds are not prepared to interact with any kind of diversity—be it socio-economic or race and ethnicity. All too often they grew up in all closed neighborhoods with people just like them. They are not aware of the struggles that those who are less financially fortunate face and can be insensitive in classroom conversations and outside of the classroom. Without pushing from faculty and staff, it is difficult to make a change in these students’ mindsets.
If I were a student interested in attending an elite institution, I would visit first to get a feel for the variety of diversity on campus. I would attend a class in my area of interest and watch the student interaction, examine the diversity, and study the way the faculty member interacts with students. I’d visit some of the cultural houses on campus and the student center and see how students are interacting. Are they happy? Are they interacting outside of obvious cliques? I’d walk around and see who is featured in photos, the campus newspaper and what kind of events and activities are available to students. Is everyone represented or just the majority of students?
It’s hard to answer the question of whether elite institutions serve under-represented students, as there are many dimensions to the question. I believe they can and do in many ways, but I also think that they have a long way to go in order to ensure equity in the experiences of all their students.
Author Perspective: Administrator