Fostering Equal Opportunity on the Path to College

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Desegregation (Photo credit: Travis S.)

The concept of desegregation is nothing new to higher education, but socioeconomic integration – recruiting, enrolling, and retaining talented low-income students – has been historically overlooked. Its time may have finally come. To wit, in a recent meeting of the Faculty Senate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, a faculty committee shared a host of recommendations focused on enrolling freshmen classes that better reflect the socioeconomic diversity of the state. The report rightly outlined a comprehensive strategy – spanning every facet of the enrollment management process, from outreach to academic support – to clear a path to college for Wisconsin students who face significant social and economic obstacles. Likeminded efforts are underway across the U.S. In California, public universities are reaching out to disadvantaged communities to help low-income students and their parents navigate the complex college application process. Even medical schools are following suit, attempting to boost the presence of underrepresented students by evaluating MCAT scores in light of applicants’ economic backgrounds.

There are a variety of reasons socioeconomic diversity in higher education is receiving so much attention so quickly. I would like to believe the interest is grounded in a growing body of research that highlights the gap – not only in assets but also in educational attainment – between the rich and the poor. But paradigm shifts never occur in a vacuum. The truth is, this burgeoning interest in socioeconomic diversity probably stems from two cases currently before the Supreme Court, which may ultimately curtail colleges’ ability to achieve diversity goals by considering race.

Whatever the motivation, we should recognize those who are (1) taking serious steps to consider class in college admissions, and (2) sharing their strategies publicly. The faculty at UW-Madison have provided an exemplar. Their report offers concrete steps to improve socioeconomic diversity, and critically, their recommendations are grounded in UW’s mission statement – to recruit and admit “students who bring uncommon life experiences and extraordinary skills to [the UW] community.”

In my view, the next step involves developing measures that can advance the kinds of goals UW’s mission statement lays out. If universities seek “uncommon life experiences” and “extraordinary skills,” and those traits are considered relevant qualifications for admission, how do we measure them? The UW-Madison faculty recommend exploring an SAT-optional admissions policy, but is less information really the answer? I fully endorse a more sophisticated definition of merit, but wouldn’t it be more sensible to define merit based on what disadvantaged applicants have (uncommon life experiences, accomplishment in the face of adversity) rather than what they don’t have (stratospheric SAT scores)?

Designing and validating tools admissions officers can use to assess disadvantage represents an important new frontier in college access research. In subsequent posts, I will discuss some examples. For now, let’s applaud those institutions taking proactive steps to address class segregation in higher education. Their efforts are critical, not only because access to college is so important for upward mobility, but also because we look to our universities to create innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Colleges can’t be blamed for social inequalities, but colleges also can’t wait for K-12 educational systems to eradicate them. Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania, puts it well: “Even if selective universities are not themselves responsible for creating deprivation, they – along with many other institutions – may be responsible for not perpetuating it.”

Matthew Gaertner

About Matthew Gaertner

Matthew Gaertner, senior research scientist, methodological interests include multilevel models, categorical data analysis, and Item Response Theory. Substantively, his research focuses on the effects of educational policies and reforms on disadvantaged students' access, persistence, and achievement. Dr. Gaertner’s work has been published in Harvard Law Review, Harvard Educational Review, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Research in Higher Education, and Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice. His research on affirmative action has been recognized by numerous professional organizations. He was awarded a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and an Association for Institutional Research Dissertation Grant. Dr. Gaertner also received the 2013 and 2011 Charles F. Elton Best Paper Awards from the Association for Institutional Research, and was named the 2011 Outstanding Doctoral Graduate at the University of Colorado. He earned a Ph.D. in Research and Evaluation Methodology from the University of Colorado Boulder. Follow him on Twitter: @MatthewGaertner
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  • The UW System extends far beyond just UW Madison and there are many paths to achieve a UW Madison degree if that is the desired outcome. Students who do not get admitted directly as freshmen may start at a 2 year UW campus, one of the tech schools or another 4 year campus. Madison has a generous transfer policy including guaranteed transfer programs with some of the aforementioned schools so long as a minimum GPA of around 2.8-3.0 is achieved.