Diversity and Higher Education: Our Communities Need More Than "Narrowly Tailored" Solutions

At the risk of distracting us from devising appropriately "narrowly tailored" means for increasing diversity in higher education guided by thedecision, I'd like to suggest we step back from our law books, databases, and spreadsheets and focus a moment on a thought experiment as follows.
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As we survey the environment following this summer's affirmative action ruling by the Supreme Court in Fisher v. Texas, we must not lose sight of the fact that as important as legal theorizing and statistical projections may be to navigating the societal landscape, there are real lives at stake every day -- in communities large and small all across our nation. So, at the risk of distracting us from devising appropriately "narrowly tailored" means for increasing diversity in higher education guided by the Fisher decision, I'd like to suggest we step back from our law books, databases, and spreadsheets and focus a moment on a thought experiment as follows.

What if we found ourselves in a world of admissions not directed by lawyers and academics, but rather one run by leaders of cities, by school superintendents, by military leaders, by corporate leaders, by community organizers and community-based organizations, by neighborhood and faith-based associations -- many of whom have filed briefs supporting affirmative action, including the Fisher case? What do we think the animating goals of college admissions would be and what would the discussion entail? Here's what I think they'd be saying.

Race still matters, every day, in so many ways, large and small, and significantly in the map of educational opportunity. School superintendents would point to who gets disciplined and who takes AP courses. Metropolitan demographers (based on their micro-view of the data) would show us the majority-minority map of who it is that actually will be college-going material, and where will they come from. And the makers of standardized tests will be frowning yet again over why there are racial achievement gaps all across the income distribution. Thirty years ago, a National Commission on Excellence in Education told us we were A Nation at Risk because of the failures of our education system; today, we are a nation in peril if we continue to leave so much talent behind and fail to leverage the creativity of the diverse next generation to spur innovation.

Civic renewal will depend on interdependence -- on the trust and legitimacy built by working together, not on "standing our ground." The mayors of metropolitan America would tell us that they can't succeed if residents don't believe they have a legitimate voice. Community organizers would point to a wall of hopelessness to climb over when social mobility via education is blocked. Military leaders and police chiefs would remind us of the dysfunction of their forces of the past (and sometimes the present) because they lacked a critical mass of legitimately diverse leadership.

Working across difference is a learned skill, yet it isn't modeled or even appreciated in our anomic, zero-sum, frayed polity. This is where educational leaders and social scientists would point to at least a decade of evidence that students of all backgrounds do not come prepared to care about each other, to leave their implicit biases behind, or to positively leverage their diversity. They would tell us how crucial it is to understand education as a deeply entwined social endeavor, that we cannot disentangle race, class, language, gender, nationality, ability, and sexuality. And they would tell us that's why it is so important to take a nuanced, multi-dimensional, holistic perspective on social identity, ensuring through critical mass that individuals' multiple identities get rendered in all their embedded complexity.

And that notion of critical mass, or rather of taking our efforts to scale, is where this thought experiment brings me. If lawyers weren't defining the terms of this debate, we would be thinking in much grander, more ambitious terms (like those of the Lumina Foundation Challenge). That's why I want to suggest we change our ways of framing the task of increasing diversity in higher education. It's not about plucking the exceptional survivors from our fractured landscape where opportunity is reserved for a select few. It's about changing the opportunity matrix by building communities and cultivating talent.

To move the needle on college attendance the way that the Lumina Foundation reminds us we must means higher education has to do two things simultaneously. First, we need to take what I will call a "person-based approach." We need to reach into communities, aggressively recruiting the high-achieving students, but also reaching deeper and more broadly to find perhaps more hidden talent. We need to reach into community colleges and build hybrid models, as The Century Foundation has suggested, and we need to reach into what we call "geographies of opportunity" -- metropolitan regions where new talent is growing fast but current opportunities to cultivate the next diverse generation are scarce, as mapped so compellingly recently by the Social Science Research Council. As we do this, we should adopt a broader vision of academic potential, such as the holistic approach employed by the Posse Foundation and as envisioned in affirmative action. Most critically, we need to leverage this diversity, cultivating campuses and communities, where we work across difference together.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, higher education needs to take a "place-based " or "community-based approach," in which colleges and universities work comprehensively and deeply through partnerships to build their communities tackling the challenges of metropolitan America at scale, working across a district or neighborhood, especially in places on the opportunity map that need it most and that have clusters of anchor institutions primed to bring their expertise to the table. This is not unlike what Major League Baseball does when it places farm teams in communities across America, creating a system that develops a deep and broad talent pool (players/students) that ultimately benefits all of the members of the system (all Major League teams/colleges), while simultaneously benefitting the host communities. Further, engaging students in the communities to which their institutions are anchored strengthens student engagement, recognizing that "low-income" is not an isolated condition disentangled from others like first generation, race, ethnicity, and language. This then becomes a two-way street -- students are embedded within their complex identities and their communities and have deep commitments to them.

An example of working on both person-based and community-based angles at once is Say Yes to Education Syracuse. This precedent-setting partnership among the Say Yes to Education Foundation, Syracuse City School District, Syracuse University, local government, corporate, and faith-based leaders and community-based organizations, provides comprehensive academic, social, economic, health, legal supports and programming for the city's 21,000 schoolchildren and their families designed to graduation rates and promote post-secondary success. Under the Say Yes Higher Education Compact, full-tuition scholarships for academically qualified city school students upon graduation are provided by over thirty private universities across the country, including SU, and public institutions across New York State. One member of the first class of Say Yes students to graduate from SU put her experience this way: "Now I'm ready to give back to my community what was given to me, and possibly more."

So, as we contemplate yet again the tweaks in admissions procedures that can stand the test of strict legal scrutiny and still produce a diverse college-going student body, I think it worth stepping back a bit, questioning our enterprise, and listening carefully for what those kinds of voices are telling us. As academics and lawyers, we are driven, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, by dual purposes that may be admirable on their own terms but toxic in combination as a generative framework for admissions. Namely, if we try to be as selective as possible to promote quality and still ensure comparative fairness of educational opportunity, we doom our judgments to be based on dangerously narrow grounds (those that can be most easily ranked and compared), and we doom our institutions to reach a smaller and increasingly less relevant swath of America. When the basis for comparison of "quality" is 50 or even 100 points difference in a segment of the SAT score continuum already well above the national average -- a difference that is hard to argue has or can differentiate our high-achieving alums across occupations from the average of our graduates -- one has to wonder if we have lost our way in the weeds of selectivity and comparative fairness. And as we perfect this fundamentally reductionist tack, we not only leave behind more and more of our talent pool -- our potential game-changers in business, politics, and even law -- but we also relinquish some of our power as educators, cultivators of talent, and community or nation builders.

Yes, it is very important that as many as possible of the demonstrably exceptional high-achievers, scoring at the top of the SATs, for example, get to Harvard and Stanford, regardless of background (class, race, etc.) -- mindful that Princeton's esteemed former-president Bill Bowen once remarked how boring that group might be as the sum total of a college class. And yes, there are things we can do to be as "fair" as possible and presumably open up the way for more high-achieving students to get to selective colleges and universities. We can get rid of the thumb on the scale for children and grandchildren of alums. And then we can do extra recruitment of high-achieving low-income students who often simply don't apply to selective institutions, as the College Board and ACT are doing in collaboration with the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project.

These things should not feel unfamiliar to us at colleges and universities. There has always been a strong social compact between higher education and the public -- the public collectively invests in higher education and higher education collectively returns on that investment, bringing both private gain to individuals (i.e., education as a conduit to mobility) and public gain to the nation (i.e., innovation; educated citizenry; community building). By striking a balance between the private and public gains of higher education, the Morrill Acts helped remake 19th century America at a time when old models of social mobility had run their course. It's time for us to do that again, 21st century style.

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