Socioeconomic Diversity at LUC
Why care about student diversity?
by Lena Volmer, class of 2015
The idea for this research had been spooking around my head for a long time already. I had wanted to investigate this issue out of personal interest, trying to understand and correct my own (political? ideological?) assumptions in the diversity/inclusion/education debate. So when I was given the assignment to write a final project on any subject for LUC's Dean's Class -- a course to which only the top five students of each class at LUC are invited to participate -- I thought there was no better place to start the conversation about privilege, merit, excellence in education and the impact of selectivity on learning. My major worry is that this conversation remains in the hypothetical, a mere “privilege-checking” where I confess to my advantage, but fail to actually question and change the structures I have benefitted from.
The following is a condensed version of a more detailed research paper. In essence, I argue that universities should invest in creating diverse* and inclusive learning communities. First, because there is compelling evidence that diversity and inclusion bring concrete educational benefits to individual students and their academic communities. Second, because I believe that universities have a social and political responsibility to ensure equal access and success for all students. This applies particularly to publicly supported, competitive, tuition-funded universities like LUC, which erect high barriers to entry for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. I focus on the challenges for socioeconomically disadvantaged students and explore LUC's potential to improve in accommodating students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
*In this context, diversity is used to describe those personal, social and group differences between people, such as individual experiences, race, age, socioeconomic class, ability or gender.
Understand diversity as key to educational excellence
Research from fields like behavioral sciences, psychology and sociology shows that expanding and engaging with diversity enhances academic learning, intellectual growth and the development of social and leadership skills. For example: students from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds hold significantly different views on central societal issues, e.g. the death penalty or abortion. The literature explains these differences with students' diverse socialization and personal experiences, which tend to be shaped by their social and economic status. Expanding compositional diversity and integrating it into classroom learning and co-curricular activities thus increases the chance that students are exposed to a wider range of perspectives on these issues. This exposure challenges long-held assumptions and can correct bias toward other social groups. By placing students in new social situations, it forces them to abandon automated reactions and think more actively, critically and self-reflective.
"A mere change in the compositional, numerical diversity
on campus is not enough to make the 'magic of diversity' work."
Importantly, a mere change in the compositional, numerical diversity on campus is not enough to make the 'magic of diversity' work. Researchers stress that universities must provide institutional structures that encourage inter-group interaction and allow students to draw on their experiences in the classroom. Without such platforms for inter-group exchange, even students at relatively diverse universities tend to socialize with students from similar backgrounds. In addition, researchers suggest that a lack of diversity does not just limit universities' potential to provide excellent education. It can bring clear negative effects: underrepresented groups may be perceived as token, whose enhanced visibility contributes to the creation of distorted, often harmful stereotypes and the exaggeration of group differences.
Universities: Ensure equal access and success!
Besides their interest in providing excellent education, universities like LUC must acknowledge their social and political responsibility to ensure equal access and success of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Socioeconomic standing influences not only whether students apply to universities, it also impacts their success at an institution if they are accepted. Evidence to this fact has been collected for a long time, but universities continue to fail to take sufficient action to address skewed application numbers, retention rates and graduation grades.
The obvious reason for some of these skewed numbers is the fact that socioeconomically disadvantaged students simply cannot afford to attend university, especially when there is no sufficient financial support available. In addition, researchers suggest that a continued elite culture at universities discourages socioeconomically weaker students from perceiving university as a real future possibility. For example, universities often systematically exclude socioeconomically disadvantaged students in their recruitment efforts, e.g. by advertising only to exclusive, private high schools or giving preference to students with family legacy. This restricts access to information and communicates eligibility for university education based on privilege rather than talent.
The failure to confront this reality undermines
these students' right to education and produces
a massive waste of talent for society.
Without understanding and working on solutions for the challenges socioeconomically disadvantaged students face, institutions of higher education risk systematically excluding these students from the benefits associated with excellent university education -- and especially from elite programmes that offer additional advantage due to the prestige associated with their institution. The failure to confront this reality undermines these students' right to education and produces a massive waste of talent for society. In addition, it questions universities' potential to servethe public and facilitate social mobility – even though public tax money continues to fund their operations.
What can be done?
Based on my research, I gathered five points on which LUC and similar universities can work on concretely to improve diversity and an inclusive campus climate:
1) Understand the problem: Gather and monitor data relating to diversity, including access and equity, campus climate, diversity in the curriculum and learning and development. These can be used to plan effective interventions and communicate diversity efforts.
2) Expand recruitment activities to attract students from a diverse range of backgrounds, focusing on schools that tend to send few students to university, providing mentors to students from families with no history of higher education, and arranging for symbolic student awards or scholarships to communicate that students from all backgrounds are welcome at LUC.
3) Make admissions sensitive to the challenges that students from different backgrounds face, e.g. by using broader notions of 'merit' and asking for information that helps contextualize students' performance in traditional indicators, such as high-school grades. Allow for alternative applications from students that would usually not qualify for university - especially for applicants from countries like the Netherlands or Germany, where students are placed into particular school tracks that can disqualify them from applications to university early on.
4) Expand funds for financial aid and communicate the existence of such funds appropriately. There currently exists very little financial support for students facing financial difficulties at LUC. Potential ideas to change this include: systematic fundraising for scholarships, novel tuition-payment methods that decouple the time of study from the time of payment, “paying-it-forward” options where parents can pay the tuition of an additional students or cooperations with businesses and organizations that finance students in return for work alongside their studies.
5) Improve teaching and social structures to better accommodate students who do not belong to the majority social, economic, racial, or ethnic groups, and who and face particular disadvantages. Create intentionally diverse housing communities, offer workshops to sensitize students and teachers to issues connected to diversity and education, show support and award diversity-related activities and recruit diverse staff to function as relatable role models for students from all backgrounds.
To learn More
For further information, please refer to my full research paper, which also includes quotes from the students and alums I interviewed. Or, have a look at the publications of the Association of American Colleges and Universities as part of their 'Making Excellence Inclusive' Initiative. Most are publicly accessible.