Tag Archives: Diversity and Inclusiveness

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.

How the LSAT Destroys Socioeconomic Diversity

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2eO7yWk

As soon as I told my friends and family about my plans to take the LSAT, the standardized law-school admissions test, people started warning me about one particular set of questions. Analytical Reasoning, or “Logic Games,” is a section that tests your ability to order and group information. The questions are written to seem accessible and unintimidating—they ask you to analyze combinations of ice-cream flavors or animals in a zoo—but, every year, they stop tens of thousands of applicants from attending top law schools.

To get into one of the best law schools in the United States (known as the “Top 14”), you generally need an LSAT score of 165 or higher, out of 180. The first time I took a practice Logic Games section, with no preparation, I only got one of the 24 questions right. That meant that, before I even started any of the other sections, I had a 160. That score wasn’t going to get me into a top school.

Luckily, most people who study for the LSAT get a lot better at Logic Games. Every LSAT tutor I interviewed agreed that the Logic Games section is the most teachable part of the test. But in order to improve your score, you need tools—and those tools can be expensive. The average LSAT in-person prep class costs $1,300.

While law schools are steadily becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, they remain overwhelmingly upper-middle class. Only 5 percent of students at elite law schools come from families that fall in the bottom half of the socioeconomic spectrum—a number that has hardly changed since the 1960s. The Logic Games section contributes to this lack of socioeconomic diversity. If you can’t afford to adequately prepare, it’s a lot harder to earn the LSAT score you need to get into a Top 14 school. The vast majority—180—of the 200 accredited U.S. law schools can’t find jobs for 80 percent of their graduates. That means that a low score on Logic Games might stop you from becoming a lawyer.

The Logic Games section is different from all other sections on the most popular standardized tests—the MCAT, GRE, GMAT, and SAT—because it’s unlike anything students learn in high school or college. The section relies heavily on formal logic, a concept rarely taught outside of high-level college mathematics or philosophy courses.

“Students have this terrifying realization that every rule they read on the Logic Games section can be turned into an equation with variables,” said David Drew, an LSAT tutor and founder of the test-prep company, Zen LSAT. “People are scared by that concept because they’ve never learned it before.”

Most students who apply to law school were social-science or humanities majors in college. Many aren’t comfortable with numbers. But even math and science majors struggle with Logic Games.

“I was a finance major. In college, I took three calculus classes, two physics classes, and six chemistry classes,” said Laurel Kandianis, a first-year law student at Temple Law School. “And still, when I got to the Logic Games section on the test, I completely blanked. I guessed on 11 of the questions and canceled my score.”

LSAT test developers include the Logic Games section to test a student’s analytical reasoning skills—the ability to understand and organize a group of conditions and rules, and make deductions based on that information. In the most recent examination of LSAT content by the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), evaluators concluded that these kinds of skills are crucial to determining how successful a student will be in law school.

“The reasoning skills assessed in the [Logic Games] section parallel those involved in the kind of legal reasoning that is used in law school. Law school curriculum is designed to inculcate those skills that are essential to the profession of law. Therefore, we have good reason to believe these critical reasoning skills are important to the practice of law,” said Lily Knezevich, the senior director of test development at LSAC, in an email.

Logic Games are teachable because of their novelty. Law-school applicants typically have a lot of experience with the kinds of questions included on the other two sections of the LSAT. Reading Comprehension and Logical Reasoning rely on skills that humanities majors have been using throughout college: analyzing text and breaking down arguments. By the time they get through undergrad, most law-school applicants have in theory already developed these skills—they’re either good at those things, or they’re not. As a result, even after months of studying, scores on these sections rarely go up more than a couple of points. But the Logic Games section requires a completely new set of skills. And if an applicant can learn those skills, she can master the section.

Wealthy applicants have an easier time mastering Logic Games for two reasons. First, they can pay for tutors and classes. Before they did anything else to prepare for the LSAT, most of the half-dozen students I interviewed bought a book from a big test-prep company like Kaplan. Books like this generally aren’t too much of a financial burden—they typically cost under $60. But after a few weeks with a Kaplan book, every student I spoke with who used one started looking for LSAT help in other places.

“For most of the students I tutor, I’m their second or last stop,” Drew said. “Lots of them have taken some kind of free introductory course somewhere else, or they come in with a stack of books from the larger test-prep companies.”

The Logic Games section is extremely visual. To answer a set of questions successfully, you need to draw diagrams and charts. It’s difficult to master those techniques by reading about them in a book. It’s easier to watch someone actually draw the questions out and coach you as you work through them.

You can get that kind of individual attention either from a class or a tutor. The most popular online and in-person courses from the largest LSAT test-prep companies—Kaplan, Princeton Review, BluePrint, PowerScore, and Testmasters—cost between around $950 and $1,600 for approximately 80 hours of class time. Many private LSAT tutors charge between $150 and $250 an hour.

Law-school applicants from affluent backgrounds also have an easier time with Logic Games because they’re more likely to have time to study. I spoke with multiple people who either quit their jobs or took several months off to study for the LSAT. For that period of time, their parents supported them financially.

About a decade ago, the longtime LSAT tutor JY Ping founded PreProBono, a nonprofit that offers free LSAT prep and law-school counseling to low-income and minority students. Working with these students, Ping quickly realized how much they struggled to make time for the LSAT.   

“We give students involved in PreProBono the resources to prepare for the test, but they just don’t have time to study. They actually need to earn money and pay bills. What would be really great is if we could just give them a bunch of money so that they could have time,” Ping said.

The good news is that the internet is starting to provide more affordable pathways to a high score on the LSAT. In the last few years, a series of new LSAT prep companies that offer exclusively online resources have started to challenge the existing market. These companies offer access to their own online curriculum, taught through hundreds of hours of short videos. For a fraction of the price of a formal class or private tutor, students can watch a teacher work through Logic Games on paper, then pause the video and try it themselves.

7Sage, a company that Ping founded after PreProBono, is one of the largest of these new, video-based LSAT prep companies. Its most popular package costs $179, barely an eighth of the price of the standard Kaplan course. Founded in 2012, the company is known for posting free video explanations for all past Logic Games online. Ping wanted to lower the cost of preparing for the LSAT and recognized that the Logic Games section was, for most people, the biggest hurdle. If students could watch him solve every Logic Game ever created, he thought, they should be able to do well on the section.

This idea is similar to the one behind Khan Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to offering free online classes on virtually every subject. Like 7Sage and many other exclusively online LSAT prep companies, Khan Academy posts lectures as short YouTube videos. In this way, the organization strives to break the monopoly that expensive institutions have on higher education.

“The traditional LSAT prep companies play this game where they lock up their information. They have the information you need to solve the Logic Games, so what are you going to do about it? But with the internet, information is laid wide open for everyone to see. Their game doesn’t work anymore,” Ping said.

While many students still take full-price classes from traditional prep companies, more and more are discovering the increasingly wide range of online options.

“I immediately realized that I did not have an extra two grand laying around to hire a tutor, so I started searching for resources online,” said Kandianis. She found LSAT Blog, a video-based LSAT prep website run by Steve Schwartz, a Columbia Law School graduate. Using a study schedule designed by LSAT Blog, Kandianis worked through 200 hours of material.

As these online, video-based companies grow and become more visible, their presence on the LSAT test-prep scene will make Logic Games less of an obstacle for low-income students. The problem of time, however, remains. Because the Logic Games section is so different from anything most students learn in school, to score well, you need to spend a lot of time studying. Students who can afford to spare that time will always have an enormous advantage.