Making Higher Education More Equitable

The blog prompt is: “What were some of the highlights from the talk that resonated with you?” “How can you advocate in your classrooms, on campus, in your communities, to bring about more equity in higher education?” “What concerns do you have?” 350-700 minimum word count feel free to write more if you would like to do so.

I’m writing my thoughts on this after a second listening of the talk and in the context of the upcoming presidential election. I benefited from our subsequent group discussions on collective vs individual action and race. Please forgive me for my sloppiness.

I found that on my first listen, the experience was raw, and I was more aware of my emotions and personal experiences during the stimulating discussion. The moment when Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom said that unlike some other fields where there is still a great unknown, most sociologists know what works in making higher education more equitable, which include strong Federal protections for students that need them the most, and differential funding for the different types of students, made me feel a bit uneasy. The premise that as a country, we have the knowledge on what works and what doesn’t but are otherwise unable to effectuate change is deeply upsetting. Of course, this is not a surprise to many that have lived with the consequences of the neglect from the state, and that this neglect is yet another replication of the pervasive inequality that exist in our country, as well as globally. I am  not impervious to some of that neglect, and I feel a sense of solidarity with the people that are working to make education more equitable.

While I certainly have much to learn about the intricate and deceptive ways these inequalities manifest itself in society, my lived and shared experience and my studies have opened my eyes to it in general. I think what makes it painful is this sense, perhaps only in appearance, of progressive impotence in the national political process. I’m reluctant to say that progressive movements for greater equity are powerless; I may not know of all the particulars, but I know there are many working in incremental ways, both from within and outside more formalized institutions, to make radical and progressive change for equality and justice. But the national narrative can be discouraging. Perhaps as a testament to how informative the discussion was combined with my own frustrations about the status-quo, I wanted this space to be something it couldn’t be: a panacea for change. Dr. Cottom highlighted the impetus for change when she said that institutions may not survive if we can’t change this narrative of school being detached and different from society––”town vs. gown.” And in that moment, it felt frustrating that if we know how deeply unequal education is and yet we are still in the midst of this struggle to make it more equitable. I remain hopeful that many of us can effectuate change, and it is inspiring to be in the company of Drs. Cottom, Davidson, and Snell who are working to make that a reality.

In my comments during our group session on the virtual event, I mentioned the need to “de-silo” this information. I came across this curious term at a few municipal and civic-tech conferences. De-siloing information basically means greater information-sharing across society. Institutions have a wealth of specialized knowledge but can have trouble collaborating. An example of this can be found in Louise Snyder’s book “No Visible Bruises” where a professor and researcher on domestic and intimate partner violence created a task force that comprised of local police officers, lawyers, social workers, medical staff, and advocates. Each institution represented here had a specialized knowledge on interactions with victim-survivors, and each could share information of their procedures, their successes, and their failures. Because many institutions are interconnected, one institution cannot change structural inequality alone; therefore, there is a benefit to having a cross-disipline dialogue. Even if institutions were adversarial with each other, which is especially common when the different parts are competing for power or trying to preserve their existing power, a dialogue can facilitate the start of the process of a more holistic and intergrated approach to change. This need not be so formalized either. When I think of the AIDS protests, A retired chemist came to a protest meeting to explain any drug related questions while the protesters shared their tactics on grassroots organizing and provided solidarity. This is another form of de-siloing information. In order to de-silo information, it requires a more equitable participation with all members of society. In many ways, our peer leader program is an extension of that, and it’s exciting to be a part of it. On the other hand, I think it’s helpful to channel LaGuardia’s President Emeritus when they said they accept the top 100 percent, meaning everyone, so they are always thinking “who am I missing?” It is an active part of the process and journey to become more equitable, and it is something we can all continue to ask ourselves in our own groups.

The dominant discourses on the national political stage has focused on the plight of a particular population education, white males without college degrees. There have been many racial and economic analyses on their support for the President, and the explanations of racism and outright hatred of “the other,” people of color in particular, have been the most powerful. It should also be noted that again, when discussing this particular demographic, there are calls to view them with dignity, compassion, and human, with an impetus to act because of their plight; however, for all other minority demographics, there is less empathy. Dr. Cottom makes a point that there are more female college students, and of the students of color, they are not unencumbered. They are mothers and caregivers, but public policy chooses to view students as young and unencumbered because it demands less money from the state. For those that seek to understand the economic reasons, there is much talk on bringing back the dignity of work, that college is not a panacea, and to fund different types of education as well, i.e. trade schools. These positions do not seem controversial, and over a few years, I started to accept these pillars too. After all, even though I can be considered disadvantaged in many ways, it seems like an almost elitist stance to say that higher education will solve all your problems. I thought of my mother, who grew up in a small village in Guyana and only had a formal education up to the third grade. She is still human, like we all are, so shouldn’t she be deserving of a dignified work and existence. Aren’t we as humans more than our input to capitalist structures–––a point illuminated by a chaplain in The Atlantic –––our credentials, our jobs, our wealth, and even our formalized education? Again, I truly believe these things, but on the second listen of this talk, I realized, this is all premised on a cynical belief that education is not a fundamental element of our society, and perhaps my definition of what education is still limited in my imagination. Education is of course more than the formalized study that I most commonly associate with it, it also includes social norms and other functional learning to adapt to a reality contoured by a particular social status. Education can be technical, practical and even creative. It can be taught by professors to students, but also students to teachers. Beyond that, it can also be taught by people with less formalized education to those that have more of it. My previous thoughts were also cynical of what I expect from society. Surely a society as wealthy as ours can provide lifelong learning opportunities to the people in its care, and a society must champion education as fundamental to our functioning. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for society to provide more learning opportunities for all and to ensure an equitable benefit from it. Dr. Cottom stated correctly that expanding access is not enough; outcomes are the end goal. I’m sure throughout this program, I will constantly ask myself what is education, and I am excited to learn more from my peers and staff members about it.

There is also the point of equity itself being contentious. There is a renewed mainstream attention to this, recently from the political philosopher Michael Sandel with his provocative op-ed in the New York Times “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.” He argues that meritocracy shouldn’t be the end goal. He states that most Americans do not have four year degrees, that credentialism has gotten out of hand in the US, and that non-college degree holders are underrepresented in government. Sandel says “…the insult implicit in the meritocratic society…: If you did not go to college, and if you are not flourishing in the new economy, your failure must be your own fault.” Dr. Cottom also mentions this in her criticism of the higher education narrative and systems favoring individualism: you go to school so you can get a good job so you can succeed. Their arguments are different. I believe Drs. Cottom, Davidson, and Shedd’s stance is an aspirational premise that education, in many of its forms, can and should be expanded, and Sandel’s premise could be seen as more cynical, short-term present, or realist: that if we must contend in a world where higher education remains unequal, we should still humble ourselves and create an equitable space for people without college degrees. I don’t think either argument is mutually exclusive, but I still sense these positions can be adversarial. I think about this too, as many of us make our way through a higher education system that most Americans have not made their way through. How can I be a better ally and a better server of my community in the context of this education divide? I thought about this when I saw this article appear on JSTOR daily.

The issue of merit vs. equity remains in my mind because of the work that I do with local community boards in NYC for the past three years with their youth and education committees. In that time, I saw parents, normally calm, thoughtful, and deliberative in other committees, animate with such intensity over such subjects as eliminating the SHSAT and replacing it with the model Houston, Texas used for acceptance into their colleges. Their premises and implications were off-putting: was an A at this prestigious high school worth the same as this inner-city, code: black, high school? Would those inner-city student be prepared for college at an elite university if they got into a specialized high school without taking a test? I heard from the students at a specialized high school themselves on their belief of the test being objective. I saw divisions among Asian-Americans and Black and Latinx people that I was unprepared for, a more localized version of the national affirmative action case against Harvard that went on. The implications that children from people of color were somehow not prepared or capable to learn in the ways white and Asian children were–––the Washington Post pointed out that Asians are not a monolitic group either and have a large education gap based on their socioeconomic status as well. Dr. Cathy Davidson reminded us that institutions cannot change structural inequality with just good will. Here I saw the liberal push-back to progressive change to making education more equitable. Dr. Carla Shedd had much to say about the K-12 education perspective. She mentioned how some of these institutions that were ostensibly there to disrupt the patterns of inequality ended up replicating that same inequality. I thought the SHSAT was an example of that, but what Dr. Shedd said after that really had an impact: that some incarcerated people reported getting a better education in jails than in more formalized school. She continued and said our money would be better spent on the front-end of this pipeline. I believe Dr. Shedd also has an aspirational premise for making education more equitable. She said she did not support the abolition of schools. She said the schools that were discussed with some abolitionist were not really schools. Bring in the spatial element of this, I can see how having surveillance technology and police in schools is less of a learning environment and more of a punative space. I also thought of the spatial replication on inequalities present in our university systems when Dr. Cottom spoke about how universities need to see themselves as part of society and not only for their students, which they have started to treat as customers. Some universities are physically removed from the larger neighborhood and have become a physical manifestation of a modern consumerist university.

Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Yale, writes that earning a college degree may not even make you happier. How can we, or should we even, reconcile that with the push to expand both higher education opportunities and the outcomes of that education? Brooks does note that the scholarly literature is not clear on this. And I suspect most of his examples cases here are couched with privileges that many minorities do not have. Though not the only outcome, there are tangible benefits of graduating from college, and minorities show that preference too in what they study.  I do believe in education being more expansive than a credential and a degree, and like Dr. Cottom has repeated said, we need to find a political language for what schools are too and what they should be. It’s not just the college degree that matters, it’s the school’s function in society. For me, my school is also where I get therapy, and where I received some social services in my time of need. Dr. Cottom talks about how schools are also food banks. They are also housing and caretakers for some.

Knowing all of this, it is a daunting task to ask what we can do right now to make education more equitable, but throughout this talk, there are some clues. Dr. Cottom illuminated the many ways in which these institutions are flawed, like the incentive for political survival for elected officials, and the struggles of mobilizing collective action. She said no one makes an angry call to a politician because the humanities program was cut at a local community college. She explained that since schools are being treated more as customers, these customers are less likely to give grace during trying times, like the pandemic we are in now. Parents and students are less likely to cooperate with the institution if they cannot provide their dollar-amount value. Students are also short changed due to the never ending endowment cycle and may act less for the overall social good and more for a customer-valued experience, which doesn’t hold up when there is a shock to the system, like the pandemic. Right now, we can follow in the mold of the community colleges that have already successfully mobilized to advocate for their needs. As students, we can begin to explore what this “political language” can be. We can create collectives that include not only people in the university system but people outside of it too–––the professors and the babysitters, the janitors and the administration, the students and the community at large. If schools are a microcosm of society and that they can’t continue to pretend to exist outside society, then we must include everyone in it’s rebuilding and its re-imagining. We can create phone and communication banks and non-profits that start to fill in the gaps of collective actions. We can make those angry phone calls to the elected officials. Dr. Shedd said we can let go of the distinction of who belongs at the university and treat them like true public spaces. We can expand access to non-credentialed learning in the university open to the public. School libraries can partner with the city’s libraries. College greenscapes can be shared. During the pandemic, it is encouraging to see that my school’s food bank was open to the public. And we can continue to ask “who are we missing”?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *