Tag Archives: Difficult Conversations

The Problem With How Higher Education Treats Diversity

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2eCFB2X


Shortly after moving to New York two years ago, I began volunteering as a writing mentor at Minds Matter, a large, multi-city nonprofit that helps prepare underserved high-school students for college. Just a few months earlier, I’d graduated from a liberal-arts college I’d attended after participating in a similar program, and I felt both obliged to pay my good fortune forward and uniquely qualified to do so. If my experience had taught me anything, it was the power of a compelling personal narrative.

By the time I’d decided, mid-way through high school, that I wanted to attend college—and not just any college, but a competitive one, filled with Gothic Revival buildings and storied histories—I had to contend with a spotty transcript, virtually no extracurriculars, and an SAT math score inferior to that of many middle schoolers. Then I heard about QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects low-income youth with top schools.

“Students from low-income backgrounds may not realize that they have a unique perspective to present to admissions officers,” the organization’s website explains. “If your identity has been shaped by financial difficulties and other obstacles, consider writing about these challenges in your essays so that admissions officers understand the full context of your successes and academic accomplishments.” It provides a bullet-point list of potential topics, such as: English is not your first language; You’ve been homeless; You commute a long distance to attend a better school. If I were to succeed, I would need to leverage precisely the circumstances that had, conceivably, held me back. My personal statement portrayed a poor girl from a large Arkansas family, raised in a fringe religion and eager to explore the big world beyond. It wasn’t untrue, exactly, but it felt like a lie by omission, or perhaps oversimplification. My life was more than a tale of woe.

If I felt guilty about exploiting my background to appeal to colleges looking to build a well-rounded class, I also felt grateful for the opportunity. I still do; it’s unlikely I would have gotten the education I did if I hadn’t. But as I help my Minds Matter mentees, now seniors, apply to colleges this fall—and in some cases, complete the same QuestBridge application I did when I was their age—it has become harder to maintain this ambivalence. I don’t want my students to reduce their own lives to stories of hardship—or, at least, I don’t want them to feel that they need to in order to earn a berth at the college they choose.

Still, the pressure for students—particularly underrepresented nonwhite and low-income applicants—to package themselves like this is acute at a time when “diversity” remains the only rationale for affirmative action that the Supreme Court has consistently upheld, most recently in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. It routinely cites the importance of diversity in the global marketplace, where companies praise it as a catalyst for creativity and link it with greater financial returns. (“We know intuitively that diversity matters,” declared a recent report from McKinsey.) Yet for something so widely desired, what diversity means and why people want it remain unclear. My boss at a magazine where I once worked asked me to find images of a youth choir that—she paused, unsure how to proceed—“showed its diversity.” I nodded furtively and, a few minutes later, produced several photos with white and brown faces floating above identical purple blouses.

The cover of Natasha Warikioo's "The Diversity Bargain"
The University of Chicago Press

Such are the paradoxes that Natasha Warikoo examines in her new book The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy Elite Universities. Inspired by her own experience as an Indian American student in the 1990s and, later, as a visiting professor at the University of London, Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, set out to understand how students of various backgrounds at Brown, Harvard, and Oxford conceive of diversity and merit in the college-admission process. Particularly in the U.S., where universities emphasize their “holistic” evaluations of applicants and, studies show, calibrate SAT scores depending on a variety of factors including race, legacy status, and athletic recruitment, she was curious how students justified the practice. Reasoning that elite colleges tend to espouse relatively progressive views and that their students—having gained entree to the world’s most prized institutions—would presumably have little reason to resent affirmative action, she decided this sample would provide insights into “the best-case scenario in terms of support for racial inclusion.”

What Warikoo finds at Brown and Harvard is a mixed bag: Students praise diversity and support affirmative action, but mostly by striking what she coins the “diversity bargain”: Rather than accepting it as a means of amelioration for systemic inequality, they support it on the assumption that it increases the student body’s collective merit, enriching the college experience for all. Time and again, she comes across students like Stephanie, a white history major at Harvard, who says “race needs to be considered” because an “ethnically diverse community is beneficial to everyone and is such an integral part of the Harvard education.” This view, Warikoo deftly demonstrates, is held by a majority of students of all racial identifications, and it aligns strongly with that of their schools. “We will consider how your unique talents, accomplishments, energy, curiosity, perspective, and identity might weave into the ever-changing tapestry that is Brown University,” reads the mission statement on its admissions webpage.

If an “ever-changing tapestry” sounds delightfully chic, it also reflects an understanding of egalitarianism as an aesthetic instead of a social ideal. The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate. This wasn’t always so: Warikoo cites research from the sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern, who nearly 20 years ago identified a shift in cosmopolitan sensibilities from favoring narrowly defined “high” forms of culture (Western classical music, abstract art) to what they termed “cultural omnivorousness.” Warikoo’s interviews with students reveal this appetite extends to “interpersonal familiarity” with students of various aptitudes, affinities, and identifications. Diversity exists to be consumed by the student body to achieve a balanced diet of multiculturalism.    

Still, there is great reluctance, even discomfort, on the part of admissions offices to acknowledge race as a consideration in their evaluation process. Neither Brown nor Harvard explicitly does so, instead using words like “perspective” and “identity” to describe admissions considerations. Williams College, my own alma mater, doesn’t either, although on its website this fall, the percentage of students of color and those who are the first generation in their families to attend college is enlarged to about twice the size of the other demographic statistics. This allusiveness seems an inevitable result of the incoherence Warikoo highlights between k-12 education, which teaches children color-blindness, and the academy, where difference is extolled. It also likely reflects an increasingly mainstream understanding of race as a construct and identity as fluid. In this context, anxiety, particularly for whites, comes in the form of a question: How do you recognize a current reality (race) whose meaning isn’t fixed without institutionalizing it? The decision many make is not to name the reality at all.

Warikoo is slightly more narrow in assessing this cognitive dissonance, highlighting research (including her own) that reveals the paranoia of many white Americans who are “primed to see reverse discrimination in the future,” even if they have never experienced it themselves. Yet even if well-intentioned, the result is a quasi-colorblind, need-blind approach that places the onus on students to make their own experiences outside of the white middle-class legible to admissions committees if they wish admission criteria to be calibrated according to the opportunities they have—or have not—been afforded. “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it,” reads The Common Application’s most popular prompt. “If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” It’s an appealingly capacious invitation, but it also subtly casts applicants’ “backgrounds” or “identities” in the same terms as an “interest” or “talent,” and it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the students Warikoo interviewed do the same, recontextualizing the consideration of race and income in admissions with comparisons that avoid questions of inequality altogether. When asked “whether diversity creates problems for the university,” a student named Elliot, like many of his peers, spoke about athletic recruits:   

Before I applied, I didn’t like [the fact that] it’s really easy for … recruited athletes … I’ve had issues with that. Now that I’m here, I don’t have those issues. Because I see, like I love going to the foot-ball games. It’s fun. It’s part of the student life … I used to think that … having athletes who are quote/unquote “less qualified”—I no longer view them as less qualified. I view them as qualified in a different way.

This reasoning may seem benign, but its implications become disturbing when you replace “athletes” with “poor” or “minority” students: What if they are no fun? What if they add no discernibly “unique” perspective of black culture or rural poverty or the immigrant experience to student life? Do they still deserve an education and all of the benefits—and joys—it can confer?     

Warikoo’s research may be limited in scope, but it offers a particularly focused lens through which to view the cultural moment. Support for diversity is at a fever pitch, complete with hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite) and trendy merchandise emblazoned with the all-caps imperative to READ FEWER WHITE DUDES—an unintentionally parodic illustration of diversity’s commodification writ large. Yet as Warikoo shows, when calls for diversity aren’t accompanied by material efforts to equalize opportunity, an idealized image of equality threatens to replace the pursuit of the thing itself.

Last year, the author Claire Vaye Watkins addressed students at Tin House Writers’ Workshop with a lecture, “On Pandering,” in which she described the revelation that, for much of her career, she had been writing for a white male literary establishment. She deemed her debut collection of short stories an exercise in projection: What would the Philip Roths of the world think of her work? What about the Jonathan Franzens? She encouraged the workshop to “embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us.” Her words went viral among a certain literary set as a minor cause celebre: We need more women writers! More queer writers! More writers of color!

This is true. And yet the ideal Watkins expressed was not merely that these demographics write, but that they do so without inhibition, accessing their own particular sensibilities and imaginations—in short, to treat their own experiences as ends in themselves. It’s an exhilarating prospect, and it runs entirely counter to the task of writing what one might call the adversity narrative, which requires its author to instrumentalize her consciousness rather than explore it. This is precisely why, when my mentees fill my inbox with drafts of their essays, I want to help them resist the temptation. It’s also why Warikoo’s argument for a much more “robust, ongoing affirmative-action policy by calibrating admissions decisions according to a student’s opportunities” is doubly convincing: She attacks the premise of collective merit because it makes the inclusion of the less advantaged contingent on the benefits that will accrue to the rest. But it also requires the less powerful to pander to visions of powerlessness, so that sharing one’s own story becomes a compulsion rather than a privilege. It should be neither, but a gift, given freely.

The Cost of Being First

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2ekj5d4


When Chris was accepted into the Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he didn’t think of himself as a first-generation college student. Acknowledging his first-generation identity and how it influenced his path came years later, but the label assigned by his college is only a part of Chris’s individual story.

His parents, both Vietnamese refugees who had not gone to college, raised him in south Florida. Chris, who did not want to use his last name, knew he’d earned a golden admission ticket, but he didn’t know that getting in was only half the struggle. He hadn’t considered how his parents’ lack of higher education might influence his own college studies. “I did homework with my classmates for the first time and I found myself getting defensive about what little knowledge of college I had coming in,” Chris said, describing the anxiety and distress he experienced studying, taking tests, and meeting classmates. “I was playing pretend the moment I had my first meaningful conversation with someone, and I consequently felt lost the next year and a half.”

More schools are focusing on supporting students like Chris. But in their goal to increase access to higher education, schools label young people in ways that isolate rather than include them—particularly where colleges and the support systems they develop for these students automatically equate being first generation with being low income, as many studies suggest.

As a sociologist, Celine-Marie Pascale, a professor and the associate dean for undergraduate studies at American University, where I also teach, is concerned with the language and attitudes that develop around culture, knowledge, and power. When Pascale was a first-generation graduate student, 17 years after earning her undergraduate degree, she was awarded a scholarship and asked to visit donors. “I was incredibly grateful, of course; I could not have gone to school without it. But I became weary of going to events and representing the poor student they were saving. It felt demeaning,” she said.

The labels aren’t always intentional, and they aren’t always bad. Colleges anticipate and define student categories—like low-income, first-generation, and minority—mostly based on voluntary Common Application data provided before a student ever arrives on campus. While students aren’t required to disclose their parents’ educational backgrounds—and many don’t—self-identified first-generation students are often linked to or assumed to have economic disadvantage. Students may also choose not to disclose their first-generation status; professors and classmates won’t know unless they claim the label. But labels that assume first-generation always correlates with low-income may get in the way of the more important conversation of how individuals relate to their college community and larger culture and foster feelings of resentment.

Does it matter if first-generation students are also low-income? What about a first-generation student of color who comes from a family of means? How many labels are necessary to understand first-generation students’ needs? Labeling theory has been well established in multiple disciplines, and when applied to the classroom, teacher expectations may influence student performance. If a teacher lowers standards because he assumes a student needs the accommodation, the student’s true potential won’t be measured. A label may unintentionally shape a teacher’s reaction, meaning she may assume a certain behavior results from the label rather than the individual. At a critical juncture in a college student’s cognitive development, the combination of labels may hinder more than help.

Ben Galina, a teaching fellow at Vanderbilt University, argued in an essay that some first-generation students may resist the first-generation label, especially if it’s associated with being low-income. “Negative stereotypes about socially marginalized groups hold that any lack of socioeconomic success may be attributed to internal deficits rather than social, historical, or situational injustices,” he wrote. Focusing on achievement may lead to segregation from their families. Many unconsciously underachieve to remedy the isolation. Even if first-generation students overcome the “stereotype threat,” they may experience imposter syndrome when they arrive on campus and choose to downplay the difficult path to admission in order to blend with students who are not the first in their families to go to college. Often, first-generation students arrive on campus with doubts about their ability to achieve, even when their test scores, grades, and backgrounds don’t support their worries. But the anxiety of failing may feed the cycle. Believing they don’t belong and can’t fit in with their peers may morph the fear into a reality.

Yet there’s a danger in abandoning the concept of a first-generation student altogether. The label can be both empowering and unifying, as many of these students experience similar challenges and need similar resilience to face them. Labeling students allows schools to identify and deliver targeted resources. Schools that anticipate what this population shares and understand how to support first-generation students may increase retention rates, but only if they can reach the students where they are and persuade them to accept the help.  Regardless of where first-generation students arrive, and regardless of the scholarship money they may have received for their education, they often leave because they aren’t prepared, feel isolated from their peers, aren’t aware of available resources, or move back home to support their families.

Like their peers, many first-generation students want to make their parents and communities proud, but leaving for college can often seem like a rejection of their family’s own path. “When students and faculty pick up the label of being first -generation, they often worry about disloyalty to their families—that somehow going to college means they’re saying their parents’ lives were inadequate,” Pascale said. Like myself, Pascale is a first-generation student turned first-generation faculty member. “We become complicit with a larger cultural narrative. When you add a low-income piece, it hits even harder,” she said.

In her research, Pascale agrees with Galina about the risks of the label: “Until we have honest conversations about class, and take responsibility for the inequality that our economy systematically generates, the label of ‘first generation’ is going to be fraught.” Research in labeling theory suggests that damage to a student’s potential occurs when the label becomes the limited lens. Labels may shape attitudes and reveal a narrower view of the individual. Sometimes simply labeling a student by her race or income or class may alter her actual achievement. If classification within the classroom lowers teacher expectations, student performance may actually decrease.  

In an op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year, Byron P. White, the chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University, wrote, “As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined.” The “deficit-laden labels,” as he called them, limit deeper conversations about the assets—like persistence, independence, and resilience—that first-generation students bring to campus. But can a mere shifting of words create a ripple effect throughout higher education?

Whether the label helps or hurts, students benefit from authentic conversations about class in and out of classrooms that may not offer easy answers. Perhaps the questions matter more than any resolution. “Any label cuts both ways,” Pascale said. “There’s a process of identification that can be empowering; it also can be marginalizing.” Honest and open talks about economic justice may serve students more than labels. It’s possible that both can exist and in the same place.

And even if a student proudly claims to be first-generation, low-income, the label may provide a useful signal but it isn’t a complete story. “We live in a society that makes us uncomfortable if we can’t easily identify labels for the person we are speaking to, especially with gender and race. We’re always sorting,” Pascale said. “With class, the system works by erasure. You can’t always tell someone’s socioeconomic status when you meet them. It disarms our normal way of operating and enables us to personalize, minimize, or deny economic inequality.”

While assuming that first-generation students are low-income can foster negative stereotypes and lead to disillusionment among students, it is still true that many first-generation students are low-income and can benefit from financial and other assistance.

In his experience as a scholarship student, Chris said, “I don’t think ‘first-generation’ should necessarily be linked with ‘low-income,’ since within both there are so many different communities, and we can’t expect all of those subgroups to overlap.” But he does see that from a practical perspective, a campus office supporting one need might be just as equipped to meet another. A comprehensive approach to course scheduling, financial aid, career development, and social adjustment streamlines support and may help eliminate frustration and failure before it builds.

In “Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students,” senior scholars at the Pell Institute found that after six years of enrolling in college, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationwide had earned bachelor’s degrees; the rate was 55 percent for their more advantaged peers. With 4.5 million low-income, first-generation students enrolling in higher education, hopes are high but disparities in outcomes are growing. Students in this “doubly disadvantaged population” are more than four times more likely to leave college after the first year. They take with them significant debt that burdens themselves and their families with little to show for it.

Without scholarships, first-generation, low-income students like Chris and Pascale wouldn’t be able to attend prestigious schools. But without programs that consider the entire college experience, rather than just the financial need, they may not have made it to the graduation stage at all.  

Chris, for instance, might not have succeeded if not for the Georgetown Scholarship Program. Since its founding in 2004, the donor-funded initiative has served over 1,000 students, 70 percent of them the first in their families to go to college. The program provides recipients with mentoring, alumni networking, and resume building, but it also provides basic necessities like bedding, professional clothing, and funding for students to travel home. When a student’s background as well as emotional, social, and physical well being is considered, rather than just her college application, the path toward graduation becomes more likely. Upon acceptance, students like Chris are labeled “scholars” and welcomed among the ranks for their potential.

Chris wasn’t satisfied just accepting the support, though; he wanted to do more to reach other communities of students like his own. He became co-founder of AL1GN, the Alliance for Low-Income First-Generation Narrative, through which he’s sought to create a “network of networks” among students, faculty, staff, researchers, and allies. The goal of the group is to share not just resources but stories, too.

Policymakers and institutions, too, are starting to not only recognize the unique challenges of first-generation students but also support and uplift their path. First in the Family, for example, is a resource hub that intervenes at the high-school level to prepare college-bound students and their families for higher education; it gives them access to multimedia, workshops, and first-generation allies.

Online communities, like the grant-funded I’m First, created by the Center for Student Opportunity, offer students portals to find colleges, ask questions about the application process, and hear stories of first-generation successes. The message is one of empowerment. One article reports four advantages of being a first-generation student. The focus is also on preparing family members who may feel ill-equipped to support their child (or relative) in their unfamiliar college endeavor.

Ultimately, as White, the Cleveland State diversity officer, noted, the administrative conversations about modern students have to evolve. The success of young people—and the schools they attend—depends on it.