Powerhouse speakers address issue of socio-economic diversity

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Claude Steele, director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, answers a reporter's question during a media session on diversity in higher education, July 30. Also pictured are Eugene Tobin, left, liberal arts colleges program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Nancy Cantor, president and chancellor of Syracuse University.

In a country where those with empty pockets rarely make the grade, U.S. colleges and universities share an increasing responsibility to identify, recruit and support promising students from low-income backgrounds. Achieving genuine diversity -- both of race and class -- remains one of the major challenges in the field of higher education in the 21st century. That challenge was addressed from a variety of perspectives during a Cornell University symposium in July featuring five current and former university presidents and scholars.

The symposium, "Diversity and Excellence in American Higher Education: The Road Ahead," was organized by the Future of Minority Studies Research Project at Cornell. The theme was based on findings in the book "Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education" (University of Virginia Press, 2005) by William Bowen, Martin Kurzweil and Eugene Tobin, which argues that genuine diversity will not be achieved at U.S. colleges and universities without diversity of socio-economic class. Among its many facets, the book provides data tracking the influence of socio-economic status (SES) on students at 19 highly selective universities and public schools.

The authors conclude that qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds who make it into the admissions pool deserve the same "thumb on the scale" given to children of alumni, athletes and other special groups. However, "economic or class-based affirmative action cannot take the place of race-sensitive admissions," said Tobin, addressing an audience of about 100 people in the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium. Tobin is the liberal arts colleges program officer at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. While minority students make up a disproportionate share of those represented in the low-income strata, the overwhelming majority of these students are white. Replacing one policy with another would only reverse positive trends in an area of diversity where some progress is evident.

This is not only a question of access and equity, Tobin said, "it's also an issue of maintaining global competitiveness."

"The U.S. has fallen to seventh or eighth in the world in terms of high school graduates, and the number of Americans moving beyond high school has plateaued -- and that's an extraordinary concern for all of us," he said. For many disadvantaged young people today, to even imagine attending college is such a remote idea that "we really have to address not only the information gap and deficit gap in terms of financial aid, but just the gap in terms of ambition and aspiration," he said.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, said achieving access is one thing, but specific programmatic efforts are needed to encourage and cultivate a democratic culture on campus once students arrive. In her presentation, "Societal Faultlines and Democratic Culture," Cantor addressed the gap between intention and effect in dialogues within and across different groups.

"If universities are going to build democratic cultures that make the most of newly achieved access to opportunity for diverse students, faculty and staff, will we have to better understand how to embrace the principles of healthy group dynamics?" Cantor said, then added, "We are extraordinarily naïve" in this area.

Cantor also said universities in urban settings with large inner-city school systems also have a precollegiate responsibility "to get off the hill and into the school systems where these [low SES] students live -- and we also have to bring those students onto campus, beforehand, to demystify it. We have to create the expectation that students in inner cities have a right to own an institution and to have a sense of place in them."

Johnella Butler
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Johnella Butler, recently appointed provost of Spelman College, describes the need for "an eager patience" in making changes in socio-economic and curricular diversity in higher education because "many of these changes will not occur in our lifetime." Also pictured is Daniel Little, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

She described how Syracuse University is investing heavily in downtown properties and off-campus academic programs and also designing outreach programs that bring disadvantaged students onto campus.

While achievement-oriented students of low SES rightly deserve attention, "the big problem is that so many young people come out of high school ill-prepared, often not ready to be qualified for higher education never mind selective universities," said Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College and now president of the Spencer Foundation. He cited a study showing that, of students from the bottom third of a high school class, more than half who went onto postsecondary education "never earned a single credit."

For the more qualified student, McPherson said the challenges include navigating a financial aid system that is "remarkably opaque and in many ways perversely designed," and he advocated a restructuring of the financial aid system.

"Universities could do more to make it simpler to understand financial aid," he said. "There is actually quite a lot of money to help kids to get financial aid for good colleges."

One experiment being conducted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill replaced loans to low-SES students with grants. That approach has great potential. But as McPherson pointed out, UNC can afford to explore this option because they take on a smaller number of low-SES students than less-affluent schools.

That irony was not lost on Daniel Little, who is chancellor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, outside Detroit -- one of the most racially and economically divided cities in the United States. Little acknowledged the importance of expanding the admissions pools of low SES students at selective institutions while advocating for high-quality regional schools.

"These institutions create a set of opportunities that mean that students from middle class to disadvantaged backgrounds can get a high-quality undergraduate education" at a fraction of the cost of an elite school, he said. However, state funding for regional schools is down across the country. Michigan-Dearborn alone has experienced a 13.6 percent decrease in state funding in four years, he said.

"The democratic importance of good regional institutions is unmistakable and weighty, so the decline of funding is alarming," Little said. "We cannot preserve the parity of equity and excellence without adequate resources."

Jeffrey Lehman, making one of his first public appearances since stepping down as Cornell president, spoke of the "paradox of living in a country of individuals who aspire to be fully integrated but that sits on a background that is segregated."

During a morning media briefing, Lehman said, "The problem of transition is that there are no simple mechanisms, no color-blind systems that can get us from the background conditions to where we ought to be. We have to intervene in ways that are thoughtful and sensitive but that are aware of the role that race plays in society. We have to nudge people out of their comfort zones to where they can stretch themselves yet feel safe and that's a role the university can play."

As a named defendant in Grutter v. University of Michigan , Lehman helped prepare the law school's successful defense of its affirmative action policy, shaping the legal argument for universities' freedom to consider race as a limited factor in the admissions process in order to achieve meaningful levels of racial integration.

Claude Steele, director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, delivered a brief overview of his work in the area of stereotypes and how cues in the environment or from those in leadership positions can make or break a collegiate experience.

Steele has developed the theory of the "stereotype threat" -- the threat of being perceived as a negative stereotype or the fear of poor performance confirming that stereotype -- is powerful enough to shape the intellectual performance and academic identities of entire groups of people, low-SES students included. Steele said everyone experiences "stereotype threat" because we are all members of some group about which negative stereotypes exist.

He described some new research on the nature of group identity and its roots in the perception that one is under threat because of that identity. Steele said the tendency is to place the burden on students of color or low-SES as if there were something inherently wrong with them. Rather, he argued for simple efforts on the part of institutional leaders to create a more justly integrated environment for students who carry an unfair "psychic burden" whether because of race, class, gender or disability.