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Higher Ed Institutions Contribute to Country’s Widening Social Divide, Educators Say


It is difficult to find a college or university that does not have diversifying its student body on the top of its long list of goals and objectives, but one educator at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting said that many higher ed institutions are largely to blame for society’s widening social, racial and economic divide as many colleges’ own admissions policies keep out the very the populations they say they’re trying to admit.

In the session, “‘New’ Students: Who, What, Where, and When?” Dr. Gary Orfield, education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, argued that by increasing minimum scores required on the SAT and raising tuition without increasing financial aid, just to name two examples, colleges and universities are essentially shutting out a diverse pool of applicants.

Thomas Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said that U.S. federal and state policies since the early 1960s had always served to increase educational access. But right around 1980, policies began to narrow, rather than increase educational opportunities, Mortenson said, ticking off examples such as tax cuts for the wealthy and financial aid packages that include more loans than grants.

Schools think that a U.S. News & World Reports ranking defines quality, Mortenson said, adding that U.S. News’ “more selective schools” have reduced the number of Pell grant recipients over the years. The “more selective” schools are actually more class selective, Mortenson added. For Pell grants to be really effective, he said, they need to be around $10,000. The fact that Congress quibbles over whether to increase the grant by hundreds of dollars is just “mind boggling,” said Mortenson.

And while on one hand the educators argued that both higher education institutions and policy makers could be doing more to increase college access, there are reasons to be optimistic about today’s college students, and some causes for concern, they said.

So who are today’s college students? 

 – They are a diverse group, ethnically and racially, but 2.7 million more women are enrolled in colleges and universities than men. And while higher education has seen tremendous growth in the numbers of students of color over the years, most of the growth is concentrated at minority-serving institutions.
– They are technologically savvy.
– Male college participation rates are about where they were in the 1970s, while women’s participation has increased greatly.
– Many of today’s college students are not on a four- to six-year graduation track, rather they stop, get a job and re-enroll, usually for financial reasons.
– Many first-generation college students don’t know the basics about applying to college or accessing financial aid.

But college presidents do have some worries about meeting the challenges this “new diversity” brings. Dr. Jolene Koester, president of California State University-Northridge, said she’s worried about money as CSUN’s growing student population is not wealthy and requires more financial aid. Trying to balance educating this population with trying to still bring in financial resources is a concern, she said.

Dr. Constance M. Carroll, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District, said that while community colleges are extremely diverse, she is concerned by the continuing underrepresentation of Black and Latino male students in the community colleges, in addition to the lack of diverse faculty. And Dr. Bobby Fong, president of the private Butler University, said although his student population is typically well funded, technologically savvy, and usually of traditional college age, he said he’s well aware of the other side as he would’ve been considered a “disadvantaged student.” He just hopes the United States is not losing its vision of education as a public good.

Carroll of SDCCD echoed Fong’s sentiments. The country is going to have to bridge the two philosophies that a college education is a public good versus that it’s for private gain, she said.

–Hilary Hurd Anyaso

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