Saturday, March 01, 2014

College and Students of Color

There is a short article in the Atlantic, written by a student of moderate means who is "a native of East Flatbush, Brooklyn and the descendant of a housekeeper, doorman, drug addict, and prisoner."    There are many observations that are thoughtful about the challenges of low income students gaining admission to elite universities.  There are a few observations that I might want to add:

She compares elite colleges, including Yale, Amherst and Vassar to other colleges, writing  "Schools that are lower ranked and less rich but more committed to social justice—such as Antioch, Berea, or my current employer The New School—may be the actual bests for the normal-income student who is committed to economic equality. In their curriculum and admissions practices, these institutions of higher learning have centered concerns about systemic economic inequality. The experiences and perspectives of average income families are not rarefied but robustly reflected in these schools’ ethos and practice. The diversity of achievements by average income youth who navigate many obstacles to obtain an education are fully recognized. These are some of the steps elite universities like Yale, Amherst, and Vassar need to take in order to see their vision of an economically democratic student body become a reality."

My own observations, doing admissions work at a selective college, 9 years at private schools and 23 years in diverse public schools, mirror hers.  There are things she implies or alludes to, though, that I have observed:

  • The greater the income gap between the average student and that of recruited "under-represented" students, the less likely the connection between these students and the community.  The experience of first generation low-income students is one of being in a fish bowl.  The average student in the school cannot understand or comprehend the lives and experiences of these students.  When these students are students of color, as is more often the case, there is this norm of rich white kids and poor students of color with little intersection of the two worlds, something I clearly observed at the elite private school I worked at.    
  • Much of the discomfort is not in the lack of programs and services for these students, but cultural norms which are embedded in the environment.  One of my low income students of color who went to Harvard tried to explain this to me.  She said it was something that most white students would never even notice.  "Have you ever noticed," she said to me, "that when police cars go to an emergency in your end of town that they only have flashing lights on, but in my end of town, they always have their sirens on, no matter what time of day it is?"  When I worked at a private school in Montclair, I wrote an article in the school paper about this, noting that all the professionals in the building were called by their last names, but the custodians had their first names printed on their uniforms.  Needless to say, not something that was deeply appreciated by the administration.
  • The language in many urban and rural environments is truly a different language from that of the majority.  I am not talking about ELL students but native English speakers.  I read the papers that my wife's students hand in (she is a social studies teacher in an alternate school in Orange NJ).  They communicate well, but the rules of their language are simply different from those of Standard Written English.  And learning SWE is not about "improving" their writing, it is about learning a new language with different rules of grammar and usage.
  • Which takes me to this main point:  many elite colleges seek students of color from places where white, upper middle class values and cultures have been inculcated from an early age.  Many have been placed in prep schools through organizations like Prep for Prep or the A Better Chance program.  Others have been educated at charter schools, like Northstar Academy, where all the rooms have names of elite universities and the norm is preparing students for the world of the white upper class:  how to dress, how to speak and how to behave.  Others are sought from the few truly diverse public schools, Evanston, Montclair, Morristown, etc.  Those students of color who are talented yet remain where most students of color are educated, i.e. schools of little diversity, high poverty and low parental involvement, rarely enter the elite college lottery.
  • Also, many of the "under-represented students" are students of color from upper middle class families who have already been inculcated in this culture.
  • Attending an "elite" college is more often about power than education.  Going to a school like Yale, as the writer did, was not just about learning how to write and think, it was about learning how to speak and behave in order to be successful in the world of the rich.  There was in interesting conclusion in the Dale and Krueger study (which found that students who were admitted to elite schools and went to other colleges did as well as those who attended these elite colleges):  " Lastly, the payoff to attending an elite college appears to be greater for students from more disadvantaged family backgrounds."  This is consistent with my observation above.  

1 comment:

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