Sunday, May 27, 2007

Toward Revolutionizing Higher Education

When I first arrived at Smith in 1990 for first-year orientation, one of the first things I noticed was that there were lot of signs that everyone was a lot wealthier than me. Their clothes seemed nicer and fit better. They had more flattering hair cuts. They had several homes, one per season, and Laura Ashley bedroom sets for their dorm rooms. Not everyone, of course, but many. For the first time in my life, I felt poor.

But I wasn't. Not at all. I grew up middle class in Santa Barbara, California, well aware of the inequities in wealth before college. But in Santa Barbara, I was middle class, and while not in the upper echelon by any means, I still had far more access to goods and services than many people I knew. In high school, several of my friends had fled oppressive regimes in Asia, with stories of imprisonment and torture. They lived in Isla Vista, best known as an alluring slum adjacent to UCSB. So I knew I was not poor.

But if I felt poor at Smith, I can begin to imagine how someone who is poor might feel. While Smith (and Wesleyan, where I actually graduated from), and Harvard (where I earned a master's degree) have chosen to address issues of diversity, they've done it mostly in terms of color, and not in terms of class. And while diversity of color is good, diversity of class could be revolutionary.

For example, there is no reason that Harvard can't be free. None at all. It's a university with an endowment of 28 billion dollars larger than the budget of many countries. So, for a second, imagine if tuition to Harvard were free. Imagine if students didn't have to borrow to attend Harvard. Imagine if anyone who was qualified could attend. Imagine true diversity of class in higher education. Now, that would be revolutionary.

While reading Elite Colleges Open Door to Low-Income Youths, I imagined the potential if there were many students like Tony Jack at Amherst:

To Mr. Jack, unlike many of his classmates, food stamps are not an abstraction. His family has had to use them in emergencies. His mother raised three children as a single parent and earns $26,000 a year as a school security guard. That is just a little more than half the cost of a year’s tuition, room and board, fees and other expenses at Amherst, which for Mr. Jack’s class was close to $48,000.

So when Mr. Jack, now 22 and a senior, graduates with honors on May 27, he will not just be the first in his family to earn a college degree, but a success story in the effort by Amherst and a growing number of elite colleges to open their doors to talented low-income students.
If college and universities actually operated more as revolutionary institutions rather than corporate ones, they could completely remake the landscape of class within a few generations in the United States.