Students Aren’t Letting Higher Education or Legislators Off the Hook
Over the last six months, the public has watched as college students across the country have voiced their grievances, via sit-ins and protests, over higher education’s inattentiveness to their needs and concerns, particularly those of minority students. On the sidelines, spectators have been quick to assign blame, criticize, and even side with students — with little knowledge of the true origins of their unrest.
Above: An Ithaca College student during the Nov. 11, 2015, protest (photo courtesy of Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan)
In a December 2015 Washington Post article, Sophia A. McClennen, a professor and director of Penn State’s Center for Global Studies, said that “rather than understanding the challenges facing this generation of young people — student debt, a hostile economy, a highly polarized society, strained race relations, increased academic pressures — as a social crisis that affects us all, the trend has been to ‘privatize’ their problems and assume that students just need to ‘toughen up.’”
Attributing the dissatisfaction of students — like those at the University of Missouri-Columbia (MU), Occidental College, and Ithaca College, among others — to being coddled, as well as being unable to grasp reality, would be easy to do as the public struggles to understand the reasons for their protests and their timing.
However, as with most widespread issues in society today, the explanation is not that simple.
“Higher education is just a microcosm of what we see happening in the broader society, so as we see more and more emphasis being placed on inequities within communities of color, and as we see the gaps between the lowest- and highest-income families [widen], people are frustrated,” says President of the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP) Michelle Asha Cooper, PhD. “That is their daily life, and [students] bring their daily lives, their daily realities — their fear of police targeting, their fear of being stigmatized for the color of their skin, their fear of gender inequity — they bring that to college.”
“Students spend a significant amount of time and money on these college campuses, so they are not seeking to be coddled [or] pampered,” she adds. “They are seeking education and direction, and that is what our college campuses should provide.”
For many of these vocal students, a high-quality, inclusive education is exactly what they claim to seek through their demonstrations. In a letter to university administration in October, MU student group Concerned Student 1950 — which refers to the year the university admitted its first African American student — expressed frustration that university leaders were not doing “enough to assure that future generations of marginalized students will have a safe and inclusive learning experience” during their time at MU.
“Concerned Student 1950 has invested time, money, intellectual capital, and excessive energy to bring to the forefront these issues and to get administration on board so that we, as students, may turn our primary focus back to what we are on campus to do: obtain our degrees,” the statement continued.
And while issues may vary from institution to institution, many of students’ concerns and subsequent demands are the same.
Actions such as infusing elements of diversity and inclusion into curricula, increasing retention efforts for minority students, hiring more minority faculty members, and increasing funding for multicultural and mental health centers have been common bullet points on students’ list of demands. According to Kenneth P. Monteiro, PhD, president of the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education, some of these demands are all too familiar.
“If you look at the core [concerns], they’re talking about bread and butter issues,” says Monteiro, who is also dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. “Most of them are right out of 40 or 50 years ago; they don’t mean the same thing, though. So when they say ‘more faculty of color’.— when we were saying it in the ’60s, we meant, ‘give us one’ — they’re saying, ‘We’ve got 10, give us 20.’”
Monteiro says that while minority student enrollment saw its largest increase between 1965 and 1985, following the civil rights movement, the majority of public colleges and universities have since decreased or even ceased much of their work around diversity and inclusion.
The problem: funding.
Meeting 21st century students’ demands requires money that most universities, particularly public institutions, are lacking.
A 2015 study by nonprofit advocacy group Young Invincibles shows that between 2008 and 2014, public two- and four-year colleges experienced a 21 percent decrease in funding as a result of overall cuts in state funding for higher education. And 95 percent of states are still spending less on higher education than they did before the 2008 recession.
“Higher education is under-resourced in many ways, shapes, and forms, so we have been asked to do a lot with a lot less,” says Tia Brown McNair, EdD, vice president of the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). “Any time we can redirect funding in higher education to support this work — increasing student engagement and their ability to understand difference and [gain] intercultural knowledge — it is going to require more time, more effort, more resources, more training, more development, more programming.”
For now, colleges and universities — and their leaders — remain stranded in a sort of limbo, stuck between legislators with their hands on the checkbook and students demanding improvements.
Changing the Business of Higher Education
Lydia Singh, a junior at MU (or “Mizzou”) and chief inclusivity officer with the Missouri Student Association, says university leaders and the way in which they were running the MU campus was a point of contention for many students.
“… A college campus is definitely a business, and there is no other business that can fail its customers and still thrive, [and] Mizzou was doing just that; administrators were failing to meet the needs of so many marginalized identities on campus, and it was having negative social and academic effects,” says Singh. “So [our] protests [were] showing that administrators can’t accept university positions if their goal is more so on business and not the actual students.”
But if colleges are businesses, then students are their clients, meaning their focus should be on serving and supporting students. However, colleges and universities are dependent on state government — not solely their own leadership — to keep them running, says Monteiro.
“I think … you have very good leaders at these institutions, and they’re very powerful people, but they’re just people. So, when you cut their budgets by 20 percent, they’re going to start slashing things that they know are going to have a negative impact, but what can they do?” he says. “What they can do is, the people have to rise up to change the circumstances.”
Rise up is exactly what Singh and her fellow classmates did last fall, and she says that the protests at MU showed her that students are “allowed to exercise their voice when they are dissatisfied with their university.”
Yet the path ahead will be a slow climb.
Monteiro likens the act of transforming the current system to stretching an elastic band: “When you pull it, it will pull back,” he says.
“If you squeeze an institution, it goes back to what it knows; what it knows best is how to educate affluent white people, so it cancels things like equal opportunity programs, it cancels the multilingual program, it cancels the [LGBTQ] alliance funding. It cancels the things that it sees as less normative.— not to be mean,” Monteiro says. “Systems are hard to change, not because of mean people, but because the system only needs people to just keep doing what they’re doing.”
Regardless of colleges and universities’ lack of control in regard to funding, many criticize these institutions for losing sight of a crucial part of their mission: creating opportunities for students of all backgrounds to engage.
And while writer Frank Bruni admits that students are partly to blame for the lack of cross-cultural engagement taking place on campuses — stating that “students spend the bulk of their time on one of many homogeneous islands” — he concedes that colleges have a large role to play in facilitating these types of experiences.
“Even if a school succeeds in using its admissions process to put together a diverse student body, it often fails at the more important goal that this diversity ideally serves: meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different scars and different ways of looking at the world,” he wrote in a December 2015 op-ed in the New York Times.
Furthermore, he states that education’s mission is “about an optimal learning environment for all students: white as well as black, privileged as well as underprivileged.”
For McNair, diversity, as well as engaging students in that diversity, is a core element of a higher education.
In the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the AAC&U, McNair leads the organization’s efforts to help its 1,300 member institutions — both public and private colleges, community colleges, and research institutions — achieve excellence by addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, living, and learning on campus. She says providing a space for students to get to know themselves and their peers is an essential part of this process.
“Diversity and learning are critical to students for their full participation in society, so having them examine questions that are relevant to what’s going on in society gives them the opportunity to explore their identity, their experiences, their cultural background, their preconceptions, and to challenge those and get an understanding of who they are, [as well as] their relationship to others. [That] is a core part of the learning experience for all students,” McNair says. “And it helps them understand issues in a more complex way when they engage with people who have different backgrounds.”
However, in a November 2015 survey, titled Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success, the AAC&U found that only 34 percent of its member institutions require students to participate in diversity studies and experiences; 53 percent offer them as optional.
The High Cost of Diversity
Public institutions — where the majority of people are educated — may be taking more heat for the lack of attention to campus climate, perhaps because of the pressures created by extreme budget cuts, but private institutions have not altogether escaped students’ criticism.
However, many private colleges and universities have been quicker to respond to students’ demands, with some even taking proactive steps to address students’ concerns before they become larger issues. Monteiro believes this urgency is due to hard lessons learned a half a century ago.
“Some of the leading private institutions are realizing what they realized in the ’60s — and they don’t want to go through it again — [that] it is cheaper to become more just in the long run. So they’re throwing their money at it,” he says.
The large endowments of private universities may indicate less of an issue with funding campus-wide diversity and inclusion efforts.
The University of San Francisco (USF), a private Jesuit Catholic institution founded in 1855, is often at the top of many online lists as one of the nation’s most diverse higher education institutions, with large Hispanic and Latino, Asian American, and international student populations.
With the help of a $315 million endowment (in 2015), USF is in a great position to support its more than 10,000 students and its nearly 500 full-time faculty members.
“We’re doing everything we can, and when I say ‘we,’ most of it is — as it should be — driven and informed by our students,” says Mary J. Wardell, EdD, vice provost in the Office of Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach at USF. “I just try to do everything that I can to be a good facilitator … and be cognizant and mindful [in] responsive ways.”
With a plethora of initiatives, committees, supports, and services focused on both faculty and student recruitment, inclusion, and retention — as well as campus climate — USF remains committed to its Jesuit roots of providing “access for people who don’t have access,” Wardell says. The Gerardo Marín Dissertation and Post-Doctoral Fellowship program, for example, has opened the door to academia for many underrepresented minority scholars, effectively creating its own faculty pipeline.
“[In] a program like that … no matter what happens, we’re going to support you as best we can. We’re going to give you research and faculty development funds and help you finish your dissertation or your research,” says Wardell. “The benefit of this, when you’re the host institution, is a lot of those people end up staying.”
She says that the program’s effect on the institution and on students has been felt across campus, with new diverse faculty members influencing the curriculum and even creating new majors and minors.
For students, diversity learning experiences have taken the form of programs and spaces in which Wardell says students engage in discussions around difficult topics focused on identity, power, and privilege. Through partnerships with local communities, USF takes this dialogue beyond campus to ignite conversations and inspire young people to follow their dreams of going to college.
For USF, it all comes down to dollars and cents.
“Funding is critical,” Wardell says. “The diversity office took investment, the cultural centers take investment to ensure that we’ve got people who have been appropriately identified and trained [to] facilitate those dialogues and programs. The faculty diversity initiatives don’t happen out of the sky. That’s an institutional commitment, and if you’re going to do it, then … you have to assess it. All of it is driven by actual university investment of dollars.”
And while all of these critical initiatives, programs, and spaces take time and money to create, Monteiro says that colleges and universities often cite these very factors as reasons for why their efforts are lacking.
“First of all, that’s defeatist,” he says. “Now, it can’t be done tomorrow, but nothing can be done tomorrow; I can’t cook dinner in 13 seconds, but I can get dinner done by dinnertime. So they could put in a five- to 10-year plan. That’s exactly how we got it done between ’65 and ’85. [Colleges and universities] just stopped doing those things.”
College Completion Rates and Inclusion
As the demand for diverse workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher increases, so does the urgency for creating supports to ensure the retention and success of these students in college.
In 2014, the employment rate for young adults ages 20 to 24 with a bachelor’s or higher degree was greater than for those with only some college experience (88 percent versus 75 percent), according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Further, the employment rate for those who had only finished high school was even less, at 63.7 percent. College graduates also tend to earn higher average salaries than people without a degree.
“We want to draw that link between college completion and graduation rates and inclusive campus environments,” says IHEP’s Cooper, “because ultimately, what we have learned and what we know is that students don’t succeed on college campuses where they don’t feel welcome.”
Based on graduation rate data, it appears minority students may not feel as welcome on college campuses as their white peers.
A 2015 sample study by nonprofit advocacy organization The Education Trust reveals that while the nation’s overall graduation rate continues to improve, the gap between minority and white students remains wide. The study showed a 64.2 percent graduation rate for white students and a 50.1 percent rate for underrepresented minority students — a difference of 14.1 percent.
Yet, according to the AAC&U’s 2015 survey, 20 percent of its member institutions don’t disaggregate retention rates by race or ethnicity, and 60 percent don’t disaggregate rates by socioeconomic status, meaning those institutions have no way of knowing who is leaving and why.
However, it appears that the very students who are leaving are often the ones who had trouble getting into college — or debated going — in the first place.
Black vs. White
Efforts to deflect blame when it comes to who gets into and is supported in college lead to what Monteiro refers to as “artificial competition,” meant to pit minority students against white students to distract them from the real issue of funding. He describes this as “musical chairs.”
“As you are taking away a chair, the competition gets greater, and people experience it as ‘there are too many of us to fit in the chairs,’ but the problem is [that] you took away chairs,” he says. “… We’re telling people, ‘We don’t want you to look at the policies, we don’t want you to look at the practices, we don’t want you to look at the institutions; we want you to look at each other.’ All of social psychology, all of sociology, will tell you [that if] you do those things, you get a fight.”
“You have to be a powerful person, you have to be a privileged person, to take away the chair,” Monteiro adds. “You have to be powerful enough to influence legislators to shrink universities. Poor people of any color did not shrink universities.”
But students see beyond the static.
“The students actually get this, if you listen to them,” Monteiro says. “The ones that are out front and are trying to get attention, they’re basically saying, ‘We want seats for everybody.’ But that gets translated by some folks into, ‘They just want a seat for themselves.’”
And while students’ demands are often imagined “messier” than they really are, Monteiro argues that the focus should be on the positive outcomes they hope to yield by their actions — not on whether everyone agrees on the motivations behind them.●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.