Enough lament about the wrong-headed Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. Affirmative action was one tool to diversify the Ivy League and other elite universities. But truth be told, it was never enough.
It’s time to divert energy toward major culture changes that will truly make the nation’s elite universities equitable and diverse. These universities, including our own University of Pennsylvania, are still indisputable gateways to prestige and power, but even under affirmative action, they have favored the rich.
As the New York Times reported this week, “Elite colleges have long been filled with the children of the richest families: At Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents in the top 1 percent.” The study referenced in the Times article, conducted by Raj Chetty, David J. Deming, and John N. Friedman at Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights, presents convincing statistics on admissions at Ivy Plus colleges (the eight colleges in the Ivy League including Penn, plus the University of Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford.) “Ivy-Plus colleges are more than twice as likely to admit a student from a high-income family as compared to low-or-middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.”
It’s time to divert energy toward major culture changes that will truly make the nation’s elite universities equitable and diverse.
The study attributes these higher admission rates to preferences for children of alumni (legacies), higher ratings on extracurricular activities, and athletic recruitment. In a July 24 PBS News Hour interview, Raj Chetty admitted that some Ivy League Plus institutions have improved their statistics since his study concluded in 2015, pointing to Princeton as an example. Former Harvard University President Larry Summers and other pundits focus on eliminating legacy admissions as a post-affirmative action panacea. MIT, Johns Hopkins, and some other elite institutions have announced that they are dropping legacies.
But incremental change is not sufficient. Now is the time for prestigious universities to address racial and economic inequities in new ways.
Following SAIC’s example
The good news is that we have successful models.
One example is the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), which has an impressive record of racial and economic diversity because for many years they have emphasized recruitment over tinkering with the admissions pool. As SAIC President Elissa Tenny told The Chicago Sun Times last week, “For well over a dozen years we have been working really hard to develop a very diverse applicant pool. Our focus is much more on the recruitment end and developing this very diverse pool so that when they are in the application process, we are not using race to make a decision.”
SAIC develops this pool through upfront investment in high school students, particularly in the Chicago Public Schools, where it’s not hard to find racial diversity and students facing economic challenges.
Every selective college and university should emulate this model. Here’s what Penn could do::
Recruit a diverse applicant pool
Since it’s impossible to send recruiters to every American high school, admissions offices must always make choices. Most selective universities have a list of public and private high schools that have traditionally sent them first-rate students. But there are hundreds of excellent qualified students at other high schools.
As an alumni interviewer for Penn, I urged the admissions office to recruit at Homewood/Flossmoor, an Illinois high school that had not previously received their attention. I was familiar with H/F because of my presidency of a university in Chicago’s far south suburbs, an area that is something of a Windy City stepchild — an attitude that carries over to selective university recruiting. Penn and other elite universities must now do research and seek out these forgotten communities.
Strengthen and deepen commitment to Philadelphia public school students
The SAIC College Arts Access Program provides a free three-year college bridge experience for Chicago public high school students, funded by a private foundation, for young people interested in art and design . The program covers supplies, transportation, and the opportunity to live without charge in the school’s dorms during the summer. Since the program launched in 2014, 100 percent of the summer students have been accepted to college, many at SAIC.
What about recruiting for talent rather than for scores on standardized tests?
Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships offers a number of summer workshops for Philadelphia high school students, and the university has a limited number of scholarships for Philly high schoolers to attend its summer academic program, which otherwise costs at least $13,000. But that is limited in scope. I am suggesting emulating SAIC with a bold, long-term program.
Is a three-year bridge program costly? Yes. But to create a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus, the stakes are high and the endowment is large. These strategies are not dependent on Congress, the Supreme Court, or anyone — except enlightened presidents and trustees.
Form a partnership with the Community College of Philadelphia
Penn should recruit and prepare Community College of Philadelphia students to transfer to Penn in their junior year. It’s not difficult to find talented, racially diverse students at community colleges. But an invitation is not enough. As I’ve written about many times before, Penn should work with CCP and its students to ensure they are receiving the credits, preparation and guidance to gain admission and succeed at the university. That would be a boon both to increasing diversity and preparing more Philadelphians for an elite education, and what comes with that.
Go beyond the usual “qualifications”
Much has been made of valuing students’ qualifications over diversity. But what defines “qualifications”? Standardized test scores are now deeply questioned, and many institutions have eliminated or made them optional. High school grades can be useful in identifying applicants who learned early how to be good students. Personal essays? I tremble to think what they will look like for the class recruited for 2024 admission. Chief Justice Roberts has invited applicants to tell stories of their hardships. College admission officers call for “authenticity.” Families who can afford private college counselors will be paying big bucks for effective sob stories, while low-income students will be on their own.
What about recruiting for talent rather than for scores on standardized tests? Ask high schools to invite their stars in art, theater, dance, debating, and journalism to meet with recruiters. Involve the faculty. Just as athletic coaches make calls and visits to top athletes, professors in the arts could actively recruit talented individuals hidden away in unknown rural and urban schools.
Here’s another radical idea but one that has been used for decades at prestigious art schools like SAIC: Require students to select and organize their best work into e-portfolios. That might mean hiring large numbers of admissions officers to review those submissions, but what a difference they would make.
The end of affirmative action policies does not have to mean the death knell of diversity. In fact, if creative ideas are implemented, we will defy the forces of inequity and see a new dawn of inclusivity in our most selective institutions.
What can we do?
- Encourage Penn and other elite institutions to be bold and to do serious and creative re-thinking about inclusivity. Make philanthropic contributions to support these efforts.
- Mentor local high school students on the college application process.
- Sign high school students up for “Applying to College 101“, a new, free course from Penn and education nonprofit The Heights, which takes them through the process from learning generalities to preparing their materials.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author ofLeading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
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