The White House Summit’s Missed Opportunity

With so much brainpower and academic wealth assembled in Washington on Thursday for the White House summit on college opportunity, surely low-income students in America will reap significant additional benefits on their collegiate journeys. However, the gathering had a big missing link: the experience of the hundreds of colleges that have already provided more access, for far longer, with larger investments than most of the “new” commitments made at the White House meeting.

My own university, Trinity in Washington, is one such institution. Nearly 75 percent of our 1,000 full-time undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients, and 100 percent receive institutional aid totaling about $9-million this year, a considerable sum for a university with a $35-million operating budget and $10-million in endowment. Trinity’s median freshman family income is about $25,000, with more than half of our students coming from the most impoverished areas in the District of Columbia. Trinity is not alone in this mission—I know dozens of institutions like ours, places like the College of New Rochelle or Alverno College, renowned for their outreach to low-income students.

Such institutions were largely absent from the White House summit, apparently because our longstanding commitments to the education of large numbers of low-income students were not “new,” suggesting that the White House only wanted colleges that the administration could take credit for goading into action. The planners missed a great opportunity to bring together old practitioners and new promisors to illuminate a more robust picture of the collegiate landscape for disadvantaged students.

Experienced practitioners have some important lessons to share with those institutions that are just now putting their toes gingerly into these often-turbulent waters. Three key issues must frame any long-term program for success for low-income students:

• Campus culture matters more than money: Experience has taught us that the biggest issue with low-income students is not money—important though that may be—but campus culture. Too often, universities and philanthropists believe that the only real problem is leveling the tuition playing field, and all else will be OK. Wrong. All the scholarship support in the world will not help a student to succeed on a campus that is indifferent or hostile to a person whose life experience has been profoundly shaped by conditions of poverty. Plunging an impoverished student into the rampant materialism and hidebound traditionalism of an elite campus without a serious plan for adaptation can prove deeply harmful to both the student and the institution.

It’s all well and good for the college president to make a noble commitment to help low-income students, but what happens when those students are absorbed into the vast mosh pit of undergraduate life? Students can be unbearably cruel to each other, particularly when the heady brew of money, social class, and race are in the mix. The White House summit seemed strangely silent on the true impact of poverty on a student’s worldview. Equally important is the fact that African-American and Latino students are disproportionately affected by poverty and tend to be the largest low-income populations on many campuses. Absent a very strong plan for managing the student culture in a way that is welcoming and supportive of low-income students, social isolation and outright discrimination can make life hell for the student who is transitioning to an entirely new way of life.

• Faculty members must be prepared: At Trinity, we often say that while our students are underprepared for college, we are also underprepared for them, and we work on this every day. For genuine success with low-income students—even high-achieving low-income students—faculty members must engage in a serious transformation of pedagogy to adapt to the different learning styles such students bring to the classroom. Professors must develop classroom-management skills to reach students who bring a good deal of baggage with them. The college classroom may be the very first learning environment where a low-income student has encountered genuine academic expectations, sometimes evoking expressions of anger and hostility that mask fear and frustration because of the prior education deficits that leave such students so far behind their peers.

• “Fit” matters for every student: Wealthier students and families spend thousands of dollars finding the right college “fit,” whether that be urban or rural, large or small, arts or jocks, science geeks or poets. Fit is equally important for low-income students when it comes to personal interests and talents. Unfortunately, “undermatching” has become the latest buzzword in higher education, a pernicious term that basically says that high-achieving low-income students would be better off enrolling at elite institutions, perpetrating the myth that poor people want what the elite already have. Sure, wealthy universities can do more to help these students, but the idea that they are better served where they are a rare and isolated group amid highly privileged peers is patronizing.

By ignoring the track record of colleges and universities that have been providing access and innovative strategies for low-income student success for many years, the White House meeting reinforced one of the more unfortunate aspects of contemporary higher education—the caste system that exalts wealth and prestige over actual practice.

Elitism must bow to the reality that some of the best work with low-income students is already being done on some of the humblest campuses in the nation. Just like any other student, what’s most important for a low-income student is enrolling in a college where he or she can thrive. The emphasis should never be on the wealth or prestige or fame of the institution, but rather on the infrastructure and culture of the college that demonstrates readiness and a genuine commitment to student success. A random tactical commitment is not enough; a profound paradigm shift in the campus community is essential to ensure collegiate success for low-income students.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.

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