It is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about equity in higher education. In the many years since King’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to achieve equity–Sheff v. O’Neill, Title IX, the American with Disabilities Act, and Affirmative Action, to name a few–all areas of employment and education have improved. We have not reached equity yet, but we are moving in the right direction. These efforts, though, focus on the body (race, gender, ability). Today, I’m thinking about the equally important role of socio-economic status in college success.
In recent years, higher education has turned its focus to the experiences of first-generation college students. These students have pushed us to consider the hidden rules that make moving from start to finish in a college environment somewhat mysterious. Like many others, my university has added courses that are essentially extended orientations (FY) to help level the playing field for students of all backgrounds. From the simple things (like the extremely baffling R means Thursday on one’s schedule), to how to find an academic advisor and what to expect when meeting with them, to making four year plans, reading transcripts, and getting academic or financial support, this course is meant to demystify the secret codes of the college environment. It is our acknowledgement that universities are complicated and if you have no prior experience of them, assistance is required.
The FY effort is important, to be sure, and we are seeing a positive impact on our graduation rates since implementing this course. But there’s something else we are missing, and it is very hard to manage. Simply put, our awards and recognitions (beyond those generated by GPA) are built on the premise that students have time to participate in all sorts of activities beyond the classroom. That time is a cost that many students cannot bear.
Consider honor societies, for example. Almost all of them start with GPA as a minimum criterion for admission, but then they expect something else. That something else generally requires uncompensated hours to complete. The same is true for most student government awards. Awards for great clubs generally mean someone had to have time to organize activities for that club. And of course, there is research. Students who conduct research with faculty may or may not receive any compensation. Those who do receive compensation, are unlikely to receive enough to cover the lost wages of a part-time job.
All co-curricular activities require a lot of time. Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for students who are working to support themselves while in college. Time for participation is time away from work. Factor in the time necessary to study for classes, and these hard working students are likely to opt out of clubs, honor societies, and research opportunities. This means they’ve opted out of a lot of opportunities to be recognized for excellence. There goes that line on the resume.
For students who live on campus, it may be easier to engage in the many clubs and activities, while holding a part-time job. They are likely to be around at the hours that events may occur or be able to dash into a lab for a research project, between classes. In the best scenario, they may even have an on-campus job to support them. This is great and I applaud their participation. But for those students who commute, the cost of the time commitment is magnified by travel time and the cost of transportation. Add to that the odd hours at which many clubs meet, and these students will frequently just give up on participating. Unfortunately, our focus on participation does not factor in these barriers, and some students may feel discouraged or devalued as a result.
Now, sometimes those are just the breaks. We figure out how to juggle our workloads and resources and some of us are luckier than others in terms of our college finances. Barring big changes in how we fund public higher education, this is just the way things are. Students who cannot participate in the co-curricular still win by completing a degree and advancing their opportunities post-graduation. If we focus on funding for their tuition, and not on potential prizes, we’ll have done something to assist them and their futures will benefit from their education. But this something is not equity.
It nags at me that we have structured things in a way that rewards students who are already at an advantage. Like admissions criteria that are stacked in favor of the lucky few, perhaps we should reimagine the other rewards and opportunities, that are systematically unavailable to the less fortunate. Is it time to re-imagine how time and opportunities are structured at the university so more people can be included in the things outside of the classroom? Is it time to figure out a way to recognize the efforts of students who are holding down jobs, caring for family members, and figuring out how to succeed in college with little to no family support? Is it time for yet another look at how we inadvertently build barriers to equity? Yes, yes, it is.