US universities urged to work with schools to widen access

Wealthier institutions urged to take lead on improving minority representation

September 6, 2019
Source: Getty

US universities must work more closely with schools if they are to improve outcomes for ethnic minority students, a conference heard.

The basic problem – that universities can’t overcome wide gaps in attainment and aspiration that are already evident by the end of school – was well-recognised and longstanding, the president of Grinnell College, Raynard Kington, told Times Higher Education’s US Student Success Forum in New York.

Yet too often, Dr Kington lamented, attempts to explore solutions with leaders of US higher education were “followed by a shrug of the shoulders, like, you know, ‘What are we going to do about K-12?’”

Nevertheless, he said, “There’s no question that’s where the action is.”

While they are reluctant to wade too deeply into the school realm, Dr Kington and other academic leaders pointed out that frustrated university leaders were increasingly seeking ways to help minority students before they reach the point of choosing and entering a college.

That leaves the question, they said, of whether US higher education leaders were being too timid, given the seriousness of the problem in a country where the percentages of racial minorities working in science and engineering are a fraction of their shares of the overall population.

With those low shares of minorities and women in the employment market come compounding problems such as harassment and discrimination against the relatively few who do enter such fields.

Dr Kington put forth a solution dating back a century or more, when the nation’s historically black colleges found that they had to establish their own high schools to generate enough qualified students to attend their institutions.

“I’m not suggesting that we all create high schools,” he told the event, “but I think we have to think creatively, just as we did 100 years ago when there weren’t high schools out there preparing students for our colleges.”

Nariman Farvardin, president of the Stevens Institute of Technology, described his own in-house version, Stevens Aces, in which the institution works with a handful of local schools serving low-income minority students to identify those showing early signs of talent.

Once identified, students are given dedicated ongoing attention from Stevens, including a free residential on the Stevens campus in New Jersey.

That much effort was expensive, and companies and foundations were needed to help to finance it, Professor Farvardin said. Yet in just two years, he said, the programme has helped fuel a 46 per cent increase in freshmen from underrepresented minorities at Stevens.

“Most of these students come from families who don’t have two pennies to rub together,” Professor Farvardin said. “They have the talent; they don’t have the resources – they don’t even understand the meaning of having a career in engineering and science.

“They don’t understand the transformation that they will experience if they become an engineer or a scientist, they don’t understand they can go back to their communities and be an agent for change. We try to tell them all of those things.”

The nation’s wealthier universities should be especially active in such efforts, said Ariana González Stokas, vice-president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Barnard College.

Most of the nation’s low-income minority college students were attending community colleges, and sometimes the most prestigious US institutions won’t even accept their transfer credits, Dr González Stokas said.

“We need much greater relationship-building, alignment, and an ecosystem for those students who are in those community colleges,” Dr González Stokas said. “Building those bridges into the highly selective highly resourced institutions [will] create incredible social mobility.”

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