It was every administrator's dream: two conferences in one week. One focused on measuring student-learning outcomes, the other on effective leadership in community colleges. In both meetings, the question of who can, does and should have access to higher education arose. Many assume the answer is that all students deserve a college education. This is a fraught assumption. Higher education in the United States was transported from Europe and was a system that served to control which social classes had access to knowledge and the opportunity to contribute to the generation of knowledge.
At some point, the assumption was born that higher education is for all. Yet the original model of higher education and its exclusive structures and traditions have been steadfast even though the landscape of higher education shifted. The higher education paradigm works well for those who inherit the legacy of a college education. But as the demographics of those who comprise colleges shift, there has been no move to make the culture more inclusive. Rather, the student must fit our narrow cultural norms.
This paradox is difficult to negotiate for those of us whose work involves diversity. Yes, there have been measurable benefits to diversity efforts. We have seen increases in the presence of underrepresented students on American campuses. The Obama administration, philanthropists and public and private-sector leaders are investing in this area as they call for 60 percent of Americans to attain college degrees. The competition for this group of students is fierce, and institutions recognize the need to step up financially in order to recruit them. Yet while a few visionary institutions recognize that excellence relies on the talents of all, many institutions seek diversity out of a sense of duty, compliance, guilt or to help majority students be better prepared for the real world.
Philosophically, we are marching toward expanding opportunities for underrepresented populations. Historically, however, higher education is securely grounded in granting limited and exclusive access to the system. How do we reconcile this new movement and a centuries-old system? In his forthcoming book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Dr. Richard Arum finds that the achievement gap between Whites and students of color increases, especially between African-Americans and Whites, throughout their college experiences. Yes, college exacerbates the learning gap between students. While Arum offers a new way of exploring student outcomes, we've long known that the college graduation rates for students of color (43 percent) lag behind those of Whites (63 percent), according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education in 2007.
There has been significant discussion around why these discrepancies in outcomes and graduation rates exist. …