The Supreme Court will be taking up two cases related to higher education and admissions practices this week and everyone is poised for, well something. (See the Chronicle’s summary here). I know the arguments are important in as much as they set precedents for how we talk about structural inequities in the United States. The schools in question were doing their best to try to counteract the hundreds of years of biases that shape who gets the opportunity to attend college. In taking race into account, they are accused of creating new discriminatory practices, and there is a piece of that accusation that rings true to some. It is complicated unraveling generations of discrimination based on race, sex, and economic status. It is hard to get it right.
While the impact of the Supreme Court decisions in these cases may have important consequences for less elite schools than those under review, if we want higher education to serve the diversity of students seeking a college education, well, look no further than regional public colleges and universities. For example, if I look at the student body that my university serves, I see that we are rapidly approaching enrollment distributions that reflect our community.
You can see from this chart, that the city of Danbury is more diverse than the state, so our percentage of Latin-American students is lower than that of the city of Danbury, but higher than the state. The percent of African-Americans enrolled at WCSU reflects the city population but is slightly lower than the state. We are above the state percentages with Asian-American Students, but slightly lower than Danbury. We have a lower number of Caucasian students than the state percentages, but higher than the City of Danbury. These numbers suggest that we are recruiting classes that are representative of the students in the region.
As a relatively affordable public institution, with admissions standards focused on access rather than exclusion, this achievement makes sense. We do important things like committing to non-discrimination policies, developing pathways through college that are transparent and navigable, and working to differentiate the supports for our students, so we meet their needs. But above all, the diversity of our student body is related to our desire to admit students from our region who want access to the opportunities that higher education can bring. In other words, who to leave out is not a big priority for us.
Nevertheless, we also regularly examine our practices, because legacies of access (or the lack thereof) are woven into neighborhoods, K-12 education, and our assumptions about what a “quality” program looks like. Just last week, we were examining our admissions standards for our education degrees. It is really important that we contribute to the development of new teachers. Public higher education is the best place to pursue such a degree, given the cost of education to earnings potential that all teacher candidates must evaluate. We want our graduates to be highly prepared and capable of serving their students well. Right now, we have excellent outcomes in these programs.
The question of where to set the minimum high school GPA for admission to the teacher education degrees was the focus of our conversation. We discussed the ways in which the current minimum might be excluding talented candidates with promise. We also discussed how lowering it might reduce the very positive outcomes that already exist. It was a spirited debate, but we landed on that slightly lower GPA to broaden the opportunities for more of Connecticut’s high school graduates (and align us with our peer institutions). Central to this decision was a deep understanding of the contexts of the K-12 districts from which we recruit and a deep understanding of the kinds of supports that can help our students succeed. We opted to continue to invest in appropriate levels of support as we work to overcome those long evident biases.
We also voted on adding a new degree, the BA in Popular Music. WCSU has long been known for high-quality music programs, all of which rely in students having an interest in and access to music education starting in middle school. I say middle school because that is typically how long a student needs to have been reading music and playing an instrument to get through our audition process. The new degree acknowledges both that lack of access in some school districts, or in some families, and the reality that sometimes students learn to make music in different ways. It isn’t just about what genre of music students want to create; it is about when they will learn to read music (in college or before), and how we make room for the new ways music is made (on computers, for example). We hope we are opening doors.
There is so much more to say about the equity work that goes on at a public, access-oriented, university. We develop strategies to support students who are first in their families to attend college, knowing that our policies are a mystery and resources are not always easy to uncover. We spend time examining the data of who is succeeding and who is not, and then invest in things like structured tutoring, peer mentoring, cohort models, and so on. We are trying to share information across divisions of the university so that we can continuously uncover practices that might be inadvertently impacting particular clusters of students. We are obsessed with helping all students earn a degree.
So, as the Supreme Court argues about race-conscious admissions policies, I hope the arguments are thoughtful and enlightening. We’ll see. But I must remind everyone that these cases are about schools who trade in exclusivity by design. Ok, I guess those are necessary (maybe). But, if we actually care about equity, then the focus should be on adequately supporting (funding) the universities that are already diverse (and have the capacity to be more so) so that students are not just admitted, but also supported to the finish line.