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How Can Academic Institutions Foster Innovative Learning And Creativity Without Diversity?

We must provide broader access to higher education to ensure success for a more diverse student body.

From the towers on Lehigh University’s hillside Bethlehem campus, you can still see the silhouette of the blast furnaces that once powered 20th century industrial giant Bethlehem Steel. Those furnaces now stand as a relic of a bygone era, and also serve as a reminder for the many generations of students who spanned both worlds that it was once possible for a son or daughter of a steelworker to come to Lehigh, earn a world-class education and leave here well-prepared for a lifetime of success.

Now, as the costs of higher education continue to rise, those students who are poised for post-graduate success are more likely to come from the most prosperous households in the nation. A recent review of college mobility conducted by the New York Times found that nearly 70 percent of our students come from households with incomes in the top 20 percent. Only 1.9 percent of students came from a family that would be characterized as “poor,” but were able to go on to become rich and successful adults.

In short, while many colleges and universities might aspire to be an elite institution that prepares graduates to engage with the world and lead lives of meaning, few would want to exclusively embrace elitism by drawing heavily from the highest income households in the nation and not extending opportunity to more. Not only would that approach deny life-altering opportunities to the most academically gifted, it would also deny all its students the richness and vitality of a diverse campus community.

We are working to address this inequity. Last year, we made more than $84 million available in grants and scholarships. More than 51 percent of our students receive some form of financial aid, including loan reduction or loan elimination programs.

Lehigh created a new infrastructure through the hiring of our first Vice President for Equity and Community, a position that was created to lead institutional efforts around diversity, inclusion and equity. This senior administrator serves on the university’s leadership team and is responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive plan to enhance and continue to build on our efforts. We’ve also created a fully staffed Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity and aligned our advocacy centers (Center for Gender Equity, Pride Center, Office of

Multicultural Affairs and Chaplains Office) to provide a more systems-level approach to advocacy efforts.

In late 2015, Lehigh announced a commitment to meet 100 percent of every student’s demonstrated financial need and has been engaged in a number of initiatives to make a Lehigh education accessible to a broader spectrum of students. These include participation in the American Talent Initiative (ATI), an alliance between the nation’s top-performing colleges and universities that aims to increase the number of high-achieving, low-income students who graduate from top-tier institutions; and a partnership with the Posse Foundation, which seeks to expand educational opportunities for inner-city high school students in the Bay Area of California.

And just last month, we announced the creation of a new position of Director for Student Access and Success to champion Lehigh’s efforts to expand access for first-gen and low-income students. We recognize that far too many gifted and highly qualified students don’t seek admission to institutions like Lehigh because they don’t believe the opportunity is there. They need our support throughout their time here as well, and the director of this new program will be responsible for developing and implementing a comprehensive set of university-wide strategies that address recruitment and admission, financial aid, student life, academic coaching and advisement and even postgraduate support. To this end, a group of students founded F1RST, a club that seeks to promote an inclusive community for first-generation and working-class students at Lehigh.

But it’s not enough – not if we want to truly expand access, draw from a broader geographic base and seek out the most promising and talented students, irrespective of their family’s financial standing or the quality of their high school.

We also need to be mindful of not only the cost of the tuition, but the true cost of attending. It would serve no useful purpose to attract a great student, provide financial aid for the tuition, but make no provision for the reality of living in an environment that also requires financial resources, or that excludes these students from high-impact educational experiences such as internships or study abroad programs. That is why our Student Access and Success programing will ensure that all students can access high-impact experiential learning opportunities and why we are partnering with our Office of International Affairs to help our students pursue academic opportunities beyond campus. These include study abroad, international internships and global experiences. The program will provide students with free passports, educational trips, study abroad scholarships and personal mentoring.

These efforts are more important for Lehigh now than they ever were, as we are poised to expand our student body by 1,000 undergraduates over the course of the next decade – at a time when key demographic growth is occurring in other regions of the country. This expansion is part of a broader strategic framework that will also include an increase in the graduate student population, the expansion of our faculty by 100, construction and renovation of key facilities and the exploration of a new college – Lehigh’s fifth – dedicated to health.

To accomplish this, it is essential that we move beyond our current recruiting strength in the northeast and draw from a more diverse geographic area. We have begun expanding our footprint through key initiatives on the west coast, including our partnership with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco.

Historically, Lehigh has always ranked high on its transformative potential for its students. Our data on post-graduate success and external surveys and rankings confirm the impact this degree can have on a student’s life trajectory. At this critical moment, it must be – and is – an institutional imperative to make certain that opportunity extends to all.


In this series, CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion™ signatories and CEO Action President’s Circle members share their dedication to workplace diversity and inclusion, making impactful changes that benefit business, academic institutions and society as a whole. Follow along with #CEOAction and learn more at CEOAction.com