Investing in Diversity on College Campuses
The discussion of diversity on college campuses can feel like a numbers game. How many Black students are in the graduating class? How many international students? How many from low-income families? Recently, the Obama administration has been crunching numbers, focusing specifically on diversity of income. How many students from low-income families go to college? How many graduate?
The White House reports that only nine percent of those born in the bottom quartile attain a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to 54 percent of those born in the top quartile. To address this gaping class divide, President Obama hosted a summit last month with over 80 leaders in higher education. In order to attend the President’s summit, college presidents and philanthropists had to make a public commitment to forward one of the summit’s four initiatives, as laid out by a White House fact sheet: 1. Connecting more low-income students to the school that is right for them and ensuring they graduate, 2. Increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions, 3. Leveling the playing field in college advising and test preparation, and 4. Seeking breakthroughs in remedial education.
These initiatives explicitly acknowledge and address many of the systematic barriers low-income students face to achieving a college degree. But one of the most obvious barriers receives little mention—the stratospheric cost of higher education. Low-income students cannot afford to pay the tuitions at elite colleges, and very few of those colleges can afford to fund significant scholarship programs.
The White House fact sheet makes no mention of race or ethnicity, but a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic families are classified by the government as “low-income.” The 2009 census data indicates that 39.4 percent of Black families and 37.2 percent of Hispanic families have an annual income under $30,000 dollars, as compared to 20.4 percent of White families. This means, of course, that financial barriers to education disproportionately affect students of color.
Admitting more low-income students will not automatically increase racial or ethnic diversity on campus, and the Obama administration’s failure to address racial inequities in higher education is a serious oversight. That being said, income diversity does overlap with racial and ethnic diversity, and both require colleges to invest in financial aid.
So how much does diversity cost? And who pays? The government’s chief method of financial support for low-income students comes in the form of Pell Grants. But the College Board’s annual report on student aid indicates that during the 2012-2013 academic year, federal loans made up only 43 percent of student aid, the lowest share in the last 10 years. An individual Pell grant is calculated based on the student’s financial need and the cost of his or her institution. Currently the maximum Pell grant is $5,500, a small fraction of the annual costs of college, even for in-state students at public universities.
The Obama administration has called on colleges to make up the difference through financial aid packages, but this is only possible for the most elite and well-endowed institutions, especially after the recession in 2008. In recent years, Amherst College has been much lauded for its push towards diversity in admissions. Currently, 23 percent of their students qualify for Pell grants and students of color outnumber White students on the central campus. Amherst meets its students’ financial needs by supplying about 60 percent of students with grants-only financial aid. The school’s commitment to meeting student need may be impressive, but it is not exactly easy to reproduce. Most schools don’t have an endowment of over $1.6 billion.
In fact, there is very little incentive for colleges and universities to invest significant funds in financial aid for low-income students. Stephen Burd of the New America Foundation reveals in a 2013 essay that instead of discounting tuition for low-income students, many colleges actually use their grant money to attract wealthier students with higher test scores. In doing so, they maximize their revenues and move up in the rankings of best colleges by US News.
Burd’s essay also includes an analysis of data from the US Department of Education, which measures the “net price” that students pay for college after grant aid is exhausted. Of the private institutions analyzed, nearly two-thirds charge a net price of over $15,000 a year to students from the lowest-income families making $30,000 or less annually. Figures like this suggest that nationally, low-income students are still facing impossible financial barriers to higher education. So long as the American job market places such a premium on the college diploma, low-income students are left with little choice but to accept a nearly insurmountable state of indebtedness.
Here at Tufts, the administration has recently launched a new financial aid initiative to raise $25 million in scholarship funds (with $13 million designated for undergraduates). Though Tufts has never had an official need-blind admissions policy, Karen Richardson, the director of diversity recruitment at Tufts, noted that the school did admit the classes of 2011 and 2012 need-blind. “That was able to be done due to the campaign fundraising and a good economy,” Richardson said via email. “The undergraduate admissions office continues to use need-blind practices in reading applications and I think it’s important to note that we always have and will continue to meet 100 percent demonstrated need for all admitted students.”
The diversity numbers game can break down admissions statistics by race and ethnicity. It can tell us the cost of college, average student debt, and the size of a school’s financial aid package. Often missing from the conversation of diversity are the inequities in education that are a little harder to quantify. In 2013 the Tufts Council on Diversity released a report indicating that students pay a cost, beyond the price of tuition, if by their presence they bring some kind of diversity to a college campus.
The report shows what many Tufts students already know, that first-generation, low-income, and historically underrepresented students are regularly marginalized and subject to bias incidents on campus. The council’s data from multiple focus groups indicates that students feel silenced, inside and outside the classroom, by racist or sexist comments and other forms of discrimination.
As compared to those at peer institutions, “underrepresented minority students” at Tufts are the least satisfied with research opportunities and teacher access outside of the classroom. Combined with financial restraints, which keep many students from fully accessing Tufts’ resources, the above factors create an environment that is neither safe for a diverse student body nor conducive to academic achievement. In fact, one of the Council’s most urgent findings is that Black and Hispanic students show a significantly lower six-year graduation rate than White students at Tufts.
The Council on Diversity did not just report these problems; it also made recommendations for how the university might address systematic inequities, including training for faculty and staff to achieve “cultural competency,” and integrating issues of diversity and social justice into the curriculum across disciplines. To put these initiatives into practice, the council recommended hiring a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO), and the administration has already begun to assemble a search committee for that purpose.
Tufts Junior Darien Headen, who served on the Council’s Undergraduate Working Group, said he was pleased with the report’s substance. Nevertheless, he noted that it might be a bit idealistic. “My fear is that the recommendations aren’t necessarily going to be implemented or they’re not going to be implemented quick enough to really see changes,” he said. “These sorts of conversations and talks have been had at Tufts before but now I think it’s time for the actual action. If action isn’t taken then what are we spending our time doing?”
Headen acknowledged that the CDO position would open up a centralized, administrative forum (which formerly did not exist) for addressing issues of equity and diversity on campus. Still, hiring a CDO would not necessarily bring about change. “It’s all about how structures are put in place,” Headen said. “So we have a Chief Diversity Officer but if that person doesn’t have administrative and financial support, because they will need that, then I don’t know how the position will thrive.”
In fact, all of the Council’s recommendations require further investment of money and administrative support. The report’s central argument is that investment in diversity cannot stop with financial aid. Tufts is not meeting students’ 100 percent demonstrated need if the school doesn’t invest in guaranteeing their wellbeing and academic success after matriculation.
The Council’s report takes pains to note that disparities in academic achievements across race and class lines are not unique to Tufts. Where Tufts is failing to meet students’ demonstrated need, so too is the rest of the country. The recent White House summit reveals that addressing educational disparities has become a national agenda. But when President Obama called on college administrators to further the cause, he did not mention investments in social justice on college campuses. If most colleges are scrambling or unwilling to raise money for financial aid, it is unlikely that they will also invest in the programs necessary to support a diverse student body, especially if those programs are left out of the diversity conversation. So long as the question of diversity remains limited to the numbers game, admissions statistics, and financial aid packages, disparities in academic achievement will remain entrenched.