Leadership & Governance

Diversity on a Small Scale

On Leadership: Sean Decatur

June 23, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

With its bucolic campus, favorable national rankings, and selectivity, Kenyon College bears trappings of the most highly regarded liberal-arts institutions. As with many of them, however, data show Kenyon to be lacking in economic diversity.

Students there have a median family income of nearly $215,000, and the Ohio college enrolls more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent, according to recent research.

Similar income distributions can be found at about three dozen other colleges, including some of Kenyon’s peers, such as Middlebury College and Colgate University.

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At Kenyon, which has an average annual cost of about $30,000, 10 percent of students receive federal Pell Grants, designated for low-income recipients.

Sean M. Decatur, president of Kenyon, stopped by The Chronicle's offices to discuss how the institution is working to reach more low-income students.


JACK STRIPLING: I'm here with Sean Decatur, who is president of Kenyon College. Thank you for coming, so much.

SEAN DECATUR: Thank you, Jack, great to be here.

JACK STRIPLING: So I want to talk to you a little bit about economic diversity, which is something that selective liberal-arts colleges like Kenyon sometimes struggle with a little bit. Tell me to the extent, you've been at Kenyan about four years, was this something your board described to you as a priority to deal with when you came in? How much has this been part of the conversation on your campus?

SEAN DECATUR: So it certainly is a priority that emerged from our strategic-planning process that we began soon after I arrived on campus.

We were taking a look at what the biggest challenges are that face the institution moving forward, and the idea that we need to have a diverse population of students on campus, and diversity writ large. So including socioeconomic diversity, racial, ethnic diversity, diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

It's just essential for the learning environment that we want to have on campus. And also essential to make sure that we can define ourselves as an institution where academic excellence and your talent that you contribute intellectually to the environment is the most important piece of admission.

And so when we take a look at our process, we have a number of — our numbers for students that are Pell-eligible that come to campus is about 9 percent. We think that's an area where, when we look at our peers and institutions that have made this a priority for some time, they're actually doing much better on that front, and we think there's space for us to do better at Kenyon as well.

JACK STRIPLING: So you've had some candid assessment of this, and you think there's definitely room for improvement.


JACK STRIPLING: So tell me a little bit about — one of the things that's notable about a place like Kenyon is that you are a small place, it's one of the reasons people are attracted to you. I think undergraduate student body, 1,700, somewhere around there.

I sort of wonder, while it's noble to do this, when we talk about economic diversity, it's not just an inherent good for campus — which perhaps it is — we're also talking about upward mobility for the country, we're talking about people leading more meaningful lives.

It would seem, by definition, you'd be operating at the fringes of this conversation, in terms of the scale that you could employ. Why is that still important, given the fact that, even if you were to increase your Pell eligibility to 20 percent, 30 percent, you'd still be dealing with a very small group of people?

SEAN DECATUR: I think one of the things that's important about Kenyon and I think places like Kenyon is not only the numbers of those students that we serve, but also the effectiveness of the education.

So when we look at things like our retention and graduation rates for both students overall and then breaking it down to our Pell-eligible students, one of the things that's striking about Kenyon is that we serve our Pell-eligible students as well. And in some years, actually a little bit better, in terms of looking at retention and graduation rates when we compare those to the overall population.

And in a time when there's a lot of consternation about not only bringing students from a range of backgrounds and a range of financial needs to college campuses, but also making sure they're served well and graduate and can be successful after graduation, I think that Kenyon and its peers actually do quite well on that.

JACK STRIPLING: With that group, I guess what I'm trying to drive at is to the extent we see this as a national problem. What role does a place like Kenyon really play? It does play a small role, right?

SEAN DECATUR: Right. No, I think it plays a role, because there are certainly students that I think actually will do very well if they —

JACK STRIPLING: You think they'll be more impactful because they're Kenyon graduates in some way?

JACK STRIPLING: I think that the — there are a couple of ways to look at this that are interesting. One is, are there populations of students that might have a particular interest or connection to going to Kenyon, that sometimes get overlooked or are not served well?

I think for us, if you look at our area that we're in, our surroundings. We are in an area where local students, regional students are actually underrepresented on our campus. And part of that is the barrier of paying for a Kenyon education.

So the more we can do to actually serve some students that should actually have a natural affinity to coming to a place like Kenyon, in terms of it being an academically excellent school that's in the local region. I think we have a particular connection to those students.

I think when you look more broadly on a national scale, I believe strongly there are some students that are just served well by a small liberal-arts environment, where there's close interaction between faculty and students, where an emphasis on mentoring and opportunities outside of the classroom is key and central. And the students deserve to have that as a choice of an institution that might fit well for them, just in the same way that they might choose other institutions that might be a fit.

JACK STRIPLING: Sure, I take your meaning on that. So we have more information in the world than we've had before about these types of issues. And one of the things that has come out in the last year or so was this mobility report card.

It made a lot of buzz in January. It was a group of economists that got together and looked at tax returns and any manner of things, and they looked at places specifically that were drawing a large share of their students from the top 1 percent of the income scale. Kenyon was among about three dozen colleges that was near the top of that list. This isn't news to you, you and I have been talking about it.

But it is more public, and I wonder if you're feeling more pressure. This pressure has been internal, but now it's kind of being talked about more broadly. Has this raised the stakes for a place like Kenyon in terms of the scrutiny of this issue?

SEAN DECATUR: I think it certainly has broadened the audience that recognizes this as an issue. Internally, it really hasn't made clear anything new that hasn't been clear to us already in terms of the types of students who are recruited and matriculate to Kenyon.

I think it's raised the attention to the larger issue of, these are institutions where a broader range of students should have an opportunity to come and study. And I think that that — I think will be helpful for us to make progress on this as a larger priority, because it does have attention as a bigger issue.

JACK STRIPLING: When I've talked to college leaders who've dealt with this, and I know, to your point earlier, you have evidence to show that these students are doing well at Kenyon.

But when I've talked to other presidents, what they really worry about in a lot of cases is, once they bring in students who are of lower-income backgrounds on campuses that historically have not done a great job of bringing in those types of students, it can create a stratification on the campus. It can create isolation for people who are from those low-income backgrounds.

How cognisant of that issue are you, and what sorts of things might Kenyon do to be able to sort of address that, to the extent you witness it as a problem?

SEAN DECATUR: Right. And I think it certainly is a big issue at Kenyon and other campuses. I often say that diversity is only half of the problem, and it's actually the easier half. Creating a truly inclusive culture and climate on campus is much more challenging.

And the first step, you do need a critical mass of students in order to begin building that inclusive culture. But once you get that critical mass, you have to give attention to, how does the institution change and adapt and make space for what are the changing demographics of the campus?

We've approached that partially by programs that are intended to make sure that students make a successful transition from high school, or different background, into Kenyon.

We have a program called KEEP, the Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program, that brings cohorts of students who are first-generation, or from low-income families, or underrepresented groups to campus, gives them intensive mentoring and support.

And I think not purely on an academic front. Because actually, academically any student we admit actually is in a position to do just fine academically at Kenyon.

But also making sure that they are equipped with the tools to make connections to faculty members, to know how to connect to resources on campus, that they feel a sense of ownership and belonging to the campus. And we find that that's incredibly helpful to empower the students when they come, and to make sure that they can not only graduate, but thrive.

I'm struck each year by how many of the students who come into the KEEP program not only — they are academically successful, but they're also student leaders on campus. When I look at our student council, or look at students who are active in committees, or doing leadership positions on campus.

JACK STRIPLING: So you think they're acclimating within the campus?

SEAN DECATUR: Acclimating within the campus, and empowered to actually take leadership on campus as well, which is important.

JACK STRIPLING: Well, thank you for coming and sharing your views, Dr. Decatur. We really appreciate it.

SEAN DECATUR: Thank you. Thanks.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.