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Guiding Marginalized Students

By Jim Paterson

The record of establishing diversity on campus is much like the history of race relations and economic opportunity in America—plenty of policy and rules and rhetoric. Piles of legal briefs. Several steps forward and a few back.

Nonetheless, research shows that efforts to broaden the enrollment reach of higher education not only are moving forward, research and experience increasingly shows it benefits colleges and all their students. In addition, years of US Supreme Court decisions have put these efforts on solid legal ground, advocates believe.

And now, said Art Coleman, an attorney and policy expert on the topic, it’s important for higher education leaders to “roll up their sleeves and do the hard work.” In particular, it’s critical for them to “establish and document important research, experience, and legal foundations every step of the way,” he said.

“They should not worry so much about politics and polls or apparent threats that may be looming, though that may be easier said than done. The only thing that has consequentially changed is the heightened awareness of the issue. Colleges still need to have a clear mission, stay focused on their strategic goals and move forward,” said Coleman, managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel, a consulting firm that has been critical in developing detailed guidance for colleges when it comes to diversity and race-conscious admission policies.

Angel Pérez, vice president for enrollment and student success at Trinity College in Connecticut and an advocate for new approaches to enrollment and diversity, said separate from the legal activity, admission offices are at the heart of the issue.

“From the minute they enter the recruitment process, students are evaluating whether or not they will feel comfortable on campus and how it will support them,” he said, as he explained why he believes colleges should reach out to minorities differently, change admission policies, and even add greater diversity to their own staffs. “It all starts with the admission counselor.”

He’s led efforts to make colleges test optional to improve diversity and he oversaw gains in applications from first-generation students at Trinity after the college adopted a policy to waive application fees for all first-generation students.

William Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, as part of a series of articles on diversity published in Inside Higher Education, clearly explains that there are three primary reasons to continue these efforts.

“First, there is the obvious educational benefit. A diverse campus community enriches the learning experience for all students in ways that a more restricted culture simply can’t,” he wrote.

He also noted that it is important as part of “enlightened self interest.” “Our nation is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse and we must educate a larger number of low-income and minority students to lead in the global economy.”

Finally, he said, it is the proper path forward since low-income, underrepresented minority and first-generation students deserve an opportunity to participate in “the most reliable upwardly mobile pathway to a rewarding career and a high quality of life.”

Pérez and other experts seem confident that not only will inclusion of students of color and minority cultures, LGBTQI students, and neurodiverse (an affirmative term that encourages seeing learners as diverse rather than disabled) students continue to be a common, accepted goal. It’s also a goal that will increasingly be realized—and pay off.

The Steps Back and Forth
In four decades of trying to broaden the makeup of college campuses, that effort has moved the needle, data shows, though critics also often say it hasn’t brought change fast enough.

All but 10 states have set goals to attain diversity and improved rates of minority enrollment are common. In Indiana, for instance, the state is on track to significantly decrease the racial equity achievement gap and hopes to meet a goal of closing it by 2025. Not all states have such a record, but generally are making progress.

Meanwhile, LGBTIA+ students have gained new rights and an increased voice on most campuses, and some colleges actually view that community as a “growth market,” according to Time magazine.

Published last year, Disability as Diversity in Higher Education: Policies and Practices to Enhance Student Success, specifically highlights how disabilities are more often considered in the discussion about diversity, and one expert reviewer from Disability Studies Quarterly noted that despite the many challenges, he was happy to see: “stories of more students with disabilities attending college than ever, disability studies programs around the country flourishing, advances in technology, online learning, greater implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a shift in cultural discourse and a movement to cast disability as human diversity….”

However, enrollment numbers for students of color still significantly lag behind the rates for whites.

A New York Times article found that black and Hispanic young people, as they become a bigger part of the population, were still underrepresented in higher education compared to similarly aged white students. Through a series of graphs, it showed both Asian American and white students were significantly overrepresented and that things hadn’t changed much in 35 years of concerted work.

And some critics charge that less visible bias against LGBTI students and those with disabilities and others is an even bigger concern, and inequitable educational resources fuel the problem.

“We have a long way to go, but we are making progress,” said Juan Garcia, a program director with the testing firm ACT and expert on diversity, who said the firm’s data shows it has the most diverse group of test-takers last year than it has ever had. “But this is a systemic problem and we have to start working on it at an even younger age.”

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at NACAC, agreed.

“There’s such a distinct disadvantage to begin with for some students,” he told the Times last year. “A cascading set of obstacles all seem to contribute to a diminished representation of minority students in highly selective colleges.”

Today, he believes that despite those limitations the policies that improve equity, access, and success in education—including those supported by NACAC—are “essential to an inclusive, not exclusive, view of educational opportunity, particularly as a means to individual, societal, and economic improvement.”

“At present, however,” he said, “we’re fighting against policies that fundamentally maintain privilege and eschew equity, so the march toward a more diverse, equitable system might have been lengthened, but will carry on.”

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Four Keys

In its document, Building an Evidence Base: Important Foundations for Institutions of Higher Education Advancing Education Goals Associated with Student Diversity, the College Board and EducationCounsel through the Access and Diversity Collaborative established four key questions related to enrollment. Authors of the report said they are important as a matter of policy and as a matter of law.

  • Does the institution have a comprehensive inventory of all policies and programs intended to recruit, admit, and enroll a diverse student population? Is there a process owner and plan to update this information over time? How does this policy and program inventory align with broader institutional goals, strategies, and initiatives?
  • How do admission and outreach reflect the institution’s mission and educational goals? How do they align with goals, strategies, and programmatic investments for students on campus?
  • Is race or ethnicity included in these practices? If so, in what way? If the race or ethnicity of applicants is considered when admitting students or offering tangible benefits such as financial aid, why is the consideration necessary and what does it yield that would not be attained without the consideration of race? In other words, adequate? Can the institution show that the use of race has a demonstrable, consequential impact on its progress toward achieving the institution‘s diversity goals?
  • Has the institution seriously considered strategies that may advance diversity goals? With what results?

Ashley Pallie, associate dean of admissions at Pomona College (CA), added that the admission office also needs to routinely check its assumptions about student groups:

In our efforts to achieve diversity on campus, do we fail to broadly value diversity? Absolutely. It is a human process, and our job as admission professionals is to constantly examine the ways in which our processes are hampering student access and success.

Here are some assumptions that inhibit outreach. We ask:

  • Where does this black student show they’re black? Are they a part of a Black Student Union?
  • Does this Latinx student speak Spanish at home? Are they low-income enough?
  • Does this Native student have an enrollment number and extracurricular activities that clearly show us how they will bring their ethnicity to our community?

What are we really asking? We want evidence that the student will perform their race/ethnicity on campus.

Even if we don’t ask these questions outright, just as dangerously, we gravitate toward a specific type of student within a group.

For example, we may not ask if the Latinx student speaks Spanish, but instead look for those who are low-income, from a single parent household, who recently immigrated, or may not be documented.

We start to prioritize struggle instead of seeing the breadth and depth of the Latinx experience. There is no single factor that determines diversity—this way of thinking is counter to our mission. A middle income, suburban student is not less Latinx because of her socioeconomic status.

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The Legal Battles
In the 1960s as tension about race and equity became prominent, colleges began to try to recruit more broadly and the term “affirmative action” was first used. Then, in 1978, in a famous US Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case, a challenge to such policies was struck down and the benefits of diversity were recognized as a permissible foundation. Since that, federal courts have consistently upheld the permissibility of considering race in admission—as recently as 2016 in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, commonly referred to as Fisher II.

Harvard is at the apex of the issue again because of a recent suit brought by a group of Asian American students claiming the college rejected them in favor of lower performing students of different minority groups. The Trump Administration’s Justice Department has offered its support for the effort by the students, which is funded in part an organization that has long sought to eliminate affirmative action in admission. Meanwhile, some Asian American students have organized in opposition to the suit. (NACAC has joined the American Council on Education and some 35 other higher education organizations and universities that have filed a brief supporting Harvard in its position.)

The case may end up in the US Supreme Court and diversity advocates worry that a less favorable body might rule differently than those in the past.

While there is much college and admission counselors can do to be fair and develop college campuses that reflect the makeup of the country (see sidebar) the current administration’s policies have muddied the water. In addition to its position on the Harvard case, it has announced it is rescinding Obama-era “Dear Colleague” letters on affirmative action. Coleman, who served as deputy assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education in the 1990s, notes that such action doesn’t change the fundamentals or alter what the US Supreme Court has said over decades.

The College Board’s Access and Diversity Collaborative (NACAC serves as a member) offers an extensive set of resources for college administrators and admission officials, including a toolkit and a recently published evidence guide that “provides an actionable roadmap—framing key questions, suggesting key kinds of evidence, and pointing to illustrative sources—that can guide institutional deliberation and action for advancing education goals associated with student diversity.”

In that context, Coleman, author of the guide and other collaborative resources, notes that a college’s mission is critical.

“All facets associated with enrollment for institutions of higher education—outreach, recruitment, admissions, financial aid, and scholarships—can serve important roles in achieving diversity goals,” the evidence guide notes. It carefully considers four areas of concern for enrollment officials: mission and goals, governance, periodic review, and evaluation. The guide explores enrollment policy and practice, and measuring success.

It notes that a mission with specific goals is key. “Particularly noteworthy in the context of legal challenges to race-conscious admissions policies is the way in which court analysis has been positively shaped by statements of institutional mission,” it says. “In recent decades, nearly all challenged race- and ethnicity-conscious policies have been grounded upon core mission-related outcome-focused diversity goals established by institutions of higher education.”

How to Increase Diversity
Here are some tips from experts about three areas where initiatives can help colleges that want to broaden diversity—whether it relates to race, gender, economic status, disabilities, or many other relevant diversity criteria.

1) Reach deeper and further
Donnell Wiggins, assistant vice president, new markets for admissions at the University of Dayton (OH), is a firm believer in colleges needing to find undiscovered students in creative ways, including at nearby locations.

“We had this idea we had to go outside our backyard to broaden our reach,” he said. “We thought we’d find students who would add diversity in Chicago or New York. But sometimes we had to look closer to home.”

He said the university has used partnerships with high schools, special summer programs and scholarships, and more thorough searches and recruitment efforts—some with alums—and even in familiar districts to find students who they previously might have missed. The office also changed its marketing to attract students who might not have thought the school was the right fit.

They’ve also worked extensively with organizations committed to enrolling minority students in college. The faith-based university also collaborated with church organizations, bringing in buses of students affiliated with certain congregations.

With all that, Dayton has exceeded its goal for racial/ethnic diversity, moving from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 16.4 percent last year—and expects the level to rise again with the new class.

Ashley Pallie, associate dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, CA, said her office is very intentional about reaching students who might not expect to attend the private school.

“If we want a diverse student body, that requires a diverse student pool. Therefore, students who are not naturally in our applicant pool deserve our attention. So that’s where we invest our time and energy,” she said, noting that well over half their office’s time and resources are devoted to underserved populations.

Shunverie Barrientez, assistant director of diversity recruitment at Dedman Law School at Southern Methodist University (TX), who also presents on the topic of diversity, implements several strategies to broaden the admission office’s reach, including having a minority recruiter, minority symposiums, and special minority mentors. 

She recommends schools have plenty of information online about diversity and guidance for minority students. She also suggests a high school ambassador program, adopting a high school and summer bridge and transition programs specifically with minority and first-generation students in mind, and personal calls to minority students who may be qualified but seem uncertain or who seem to have difficult hurdles.

Garcia said admission officials should also consider working with middle school students to get them excited about college and encourage them to be successful in their high school years. “We need to begin this process even earlier,” he said.

“Think outside of the traditional recruitment funnel,” said  Pérez. “In all my years of doing this work, I’ve learned that talent is everywhere; opportunity is not.”

2) Look around the room and in the mirror
If a college’s admission office is not diverse, it is perhaps less likely to enroll a diverse student body, but also less likely to have more subtle qualities that result in less implicit bias and, as much as possible, view applicants without assumptions. (NACAC has addressed this issue as a “national challenge” according to Hawkins, based on research suggesting that admission offices are less diverse than college student bodies and the population as a whole.)

Pérez said he agrees with such research that suggests admission offices often “replicate themselves.”

“If we are going to diversify our campuses, the people who evaluate and recruit must also be diverse,” Pérez said, recalling a student who told him that his presence at the student’s South Bronx high school encouraged him to consider college. “It all starts with the admission counselor.”

Admission offices should “reflect the diverse student body you seek to attract,” Pallie said, but also include people who want to educate themselves about the topic.

“Invest in a team of professionals in your office who want to become experts on diversity, access, and inclusion research. There is so much rich data, about national trends but also institutional data and research,” she said.

Beyond that, implicit bias—the tendency to make assumptions we may not even see in ourselves—is often a factor and should be checked.

The Nature of Implicit Bias report points out that it is often complex. “The common view of prejudice is incomplete, even dangerously so,” the authors concluded. “Prejudice and stereotyping in social judgment and behavior does not require personal animus, hostility, or even awareness. In fact, prejudice is often… unwitting, unintentional, and uncontrollable—even among the most well-intentioned people.”

They found an overemphasis on conspicuous explicit bias also may cause us to ignore subtler assumptions.

Barrientez recommended admission offices have special mandatory training in such bias, that they work with representatives from minority groups to examine their processes, and meet regularly as a staff to openly exchange ideas and concerns about diversity.

A new study notes that students who indicate that racial equity is an important issue to them are 26 percent less likely to get a response to queries from predominantly white colleges.

3) Investigate the hoops
Many experts believe that diversity will increase if schools continue to de-emphasize test scores and grades in meaningful ways, simplify the application process, and help students manage admission paperwork.

Barrientez organizes special parent resource workshops concerning financial aid, admission, college readiness, and test preparation. She helps students follow up with fee waivers and believes admission offices must consider how these students may need more and different supports.

The Common Application and the Coalition for College both say they have worked to simplify the process and make it easier for non-traditional students to apply.

“A student also is more than a test score,” said Garcia, who noted such data often cause admission officials to overlook candidates from schools and families with fewer resources and less familiarity with the admission process.

He and other experts say looking carefully at prospects for qualities, such as determination and collaborative skills or a commitment to a field—or even signs that they succeeded relatively well despite severe adversity—opens enrollment staffs to including a wider range of students.

“I’d be interested in how savvy a student is. How have they navigated difficult situations? That might say a lot about their potential success and it might broaden who an admission office is considering,” Garcia said.

“All of the NACAC studies show that testing is not the best predictor of success in college—so why use it as a barrier to success?” asked Pérez.

He noted that at Trinity he dropped application fees for all low-income students, made admission test-optional, and created four-year financial aid awards for the lowest income students.

“We have enrolled the highest number of first-generation and low-income students in the college’s history because we were intentional, strategic, created an eco-system of diversity in our office, on campus and beyond—and we realized that if we were going to succeed, we were going to have to start changing the status quo. We had to reduce barriers.”

Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.

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