America’s Got an Undergraduate Problem

Higher Education Needs to Be More Inclusive ... So Where Do We Start?

In 1996, California voters banned affirmative action in public universities. Since then, the state’s public universities have struggled to enroll black and Latino students–and to keep them on campus. Thinking LA-logo-smaller Over 5,600 freshmen enrolled at UCLA in fall 2012; just 75 of those students were black men–and only 85 percent of them are expected to graduate. What can be done to make underrepresented students feel more a part of their universities, and to enroll more of them in the first place? In advance of the Zócalo/UCLA Thinking L.A. event “How Can We Make Higher Education More Inclusive?”, we asked higher education experts the following question: What is the biggest obstacle colleges and universities must overcome to create a more diverse and inclusive campus?

Mitchell J. Chang

The pyramid shape of our higher education system

Never before in our nation’s history have so many students from such varied backgrounds enrolled in our higher education system. Last fall, a record 21.8 million students attended U.S. colleges and universities. Between 2000 and 2011, there was an increase in the percentages of 18- to 24-year-old African Americans and Latinos enrolled in degree-granting institutions.

So what’s the problem concerning inclusion in our higher education system? It’s shaped like a pyramid with much easier access to institutions at the bottom. Only a few select institutions—the nation’s highest ranking—are at the very top of this pyramid, and they enroll fewer minority and low-income students.

Since the highest-ranking institutions do not change much from year to year, the public consigns special status and prestige on those institutions and their graduates. Yet students accepted to these schools are not necessarily much smarter than those who are rejected. There are simply too many highly qualified applicants.

For example, UCLA (where I teach) received more than 105,800 applications for this year’s incoming class. More than half of last year’s U.S. applicants had a weighted high school GPA of 4.0. Yet, 62 percent of those applicants were denied admission. UCLA is currently number 23 in the wildly popular rankings of US News and World Report. Higher-ranking schools are likely rejecting an even larger proportion of exceptional applicants.

Is there really a national shortage of excellent institutions among the nation’s 4,500 colleges, universities, and junior colleges? In fact, there are many schools that do more to enhance students’ learning and post-college opportunities than the few that are regularly at the top of national rankings. With so many exceptional applicants being denied admission to top institutions, we clearly need to do more to broaden capacity at the top of the pyramid by including overlooked (but excellent) schools.

Perhaps the Obama administration’s proposed rating system, which seeks to help families identify colleges that provide the best value, will move us toward adding—instead of displacing—institutions from the top of the pyramid. Greater numbers of diverse young people are attending college, but as long as the higher education system is shaped like a pyramid, we will always have a major inclusion problem.

Mitchell J. Chang is a professor of education at UCLA who specializes in the study of higher education. His scholarship includes research cited in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger, one of two cases involving the use of race sensitive admissions practices at the University of Michigan.

Julie J. Park

Systemic inequality

The psychologist Gordon Allport’s contact theory lists the conditions that are necessary for healthy intergroup relations (in other words, to make diversity work). One is institutional support, which for universities means recruiting and retaining a racially diverse student body and faculty, supporting diversity, and maintaining the necessary resources and support staff. Another condition is the pursuit of common goals, which schools can foster through initiatives to help students of different races and ethnicities learn from one another. The third condition of Allport’s contact theory—relative equal status—is a little trickier. I would argue that ensuring relative equal status—so that every student is truly unencumbered by the weight and effects of systemic inequality—represents the biggest overarching challenge for universities.

Students do not magically gain equal status upon enrollment: the inequality that shapes educational opportunity (or lack thereof) follows students into the university setting. This is not to say that students cannot engage with each other on a campus that lacks equal status. A black student may experience positive relationships in the classroom, but he may also be constantly asked to show his photo identification around campus.

It is critically important for universities to support a positive racial climate on campus and to recognize and address the influence of structural inequality. There are many things that universities can do to foster relative equal status—for instance, ensuring a racially diverse student body to lessen the isolation that minority students often experience. Equal status is a somewhat abstract concept, but its absence creates a tremendous obstacle for any university seeking to create a positive learning environment for all students.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her book, When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education, was published by Rutgers University Press in 2013.

William R. LaCourse

Resistance to institutional change

Too often, American colleges and universities see themselves as pillars standing against a rising tide of change. The very mechanisms designed to sustain universities as enduring beacons of scholarship and noble intent—for example, courses with a high failure rate or a single-minded focus on serving “traditional” students—can also limit their capacity to grow and respond to the world around them.

The difficult truth is that for colleges to be more diverse and inclusive, many will need to fundamentally change their culture. They will also need to ask challenging questions that deal with complex issues of equity and efficacy. What are the barriers to college completion? Are students who transfer from community colleges, many of whom are underrepresented minorities and non-traditional students, as successful as those who start as freshmen at four-year colleges? Are hiring and admissions processes free of bias? Are male and female faculty members, our students’ role models, treated differently? Do faculty still define rigor through the number of introductory students they fail (“weed out”), or do they thoughtfully examine how to help every student succeed?

I am grateful to work at a university founded with an inclusive vision and designed to serve diverse students from the start. Still, my colleagues at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and I do not shrink from asking tough questions about how we can improve. With hard work and determination, we’ll show that inclusiveness does not threaten excellence in higher education; inclusiveness and excellence go hand-in-hand.

William R. LaCourse is the dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and a professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from Northeastern University in 1987.