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October 01, 2013

This week, yet another study hit the news describing growing economic inequality in America, describing recent positive trends as only a “selective recovery.” This reminded me of the study published this summer that examined rates of economic mobility in different parts of the country. Geography, it seems, matters a great deal in predicting the chances to better one’s relative economic standing. 

The New York Times reported that it was much harder to move up the income ladder in the Southeast and industrial Midwest than in the Northeast, the Great Plains and the West. According to the data, the odds were stacked against you in Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Raleigh, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus in contrast to New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and Seattle. If you want to get ahead, you’d be lucky to either live in California or Minnesota.

There are many variables at play here, and I don’t want to oversimplify the various correlations, but there was one factor that really caught my attention: 

"All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods."

How does this relate to diversity on college campuses? Over the past five years, some highly selective schools have significantly increased the percentage of Pell-eligible students they enroll. But recent studies show we have to do a lot more to get the word out to low-income students that there are scholarships available that make many selective schools actually less expensive than local, public options. We work with a variety of groups to help us recruit low-income, high-ability students. But still far too many highly qualified students from low-income families don’t realize that scholarships — not loans – are available to them at top-notch universities.

Students on my campus have made it very clear, though, that recruiting high-need students is not enough. We also have to create a university culture in which they can thrive; we have to create the conditions for an educational experience in which students from all backgrounds learn from one another.

What does this have to do with the general study of geography and economic mobility across the United States? If the everyday demands faced by high need students segregates them from the rest of the student body, we have failed them. We will only get the maximum benefit from our financial aid policies when inclusion is the order of the day for all students – regardless of their economic status. 

When I was a student at the university at which I am now president, I spent many hours working in a kitchen to pay for my room and board. I was lucky to live in an environment in which this didn’t prevent me from having plenty of interaction with all kinds of students. My own parents didn’t go to college, and although I had moments of feeling lost, my teachers and fellow students never made me feel excluded. 

That was a long time ago. America today is a land of much greater distance between the haves and the have-nots. It’s always been the case that wealthy students could have a very different experience than those of limited means, but today the social distance created by that economic gap is so great that it can undermine campus learning.

Universities must resist this trend because the educational enterprise assumes a core egalitarianism linked to freedom and participation. As teachers, we are committed to equality of opportunity for our students. In big lecture halls, students can’t buy the best seats or arrange for extra help sessions with their parents’ checkbooks. In small seminars, there is a face-to-face equality altered only by the talent, ambition and creativity of the discussion participants. Differences often quickly emerge, but these are the differences of performance — variations able to emerge precisely because of the environment of equality and freedom.

There is no doubt that some students are better prepared than others. Some of that preparation was facilitated by wealth. Still, in our campus cultures these advantages of birth or luck don’t mean much over time. All students have the opportunity to accelerate and deepen their learning. In order to learn, you have to park your privilege at the classroom door. In order to teach effectively, we try to ensure that our students have an equality of opportunity that doesn’t erase their differences. 

Highly selective colleges and universities should accelerate their efforts to recruit students of extraordinary potential from diverse economic backgrounds, meeting the financial needs of students without requiring excessive borrowing.  These institutions must redouble their efforts to ensure that all students are fully included in the campus culture, that students from different social classes really interact. Like those dynamic, integrated regions singled out in the economic mobility study, our campus must create conditions that bring people together in ways that positively enhance their lives. At a time when economic inequality is tearing at the fabric of our country, we must create conditions of inclusion through which all can thrive.

Michael Roth is the president of Wesleyan University.

higher ed, opinion, increasing access and success, social contract, confronting cost, college costs, tuition, inequality

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