Diversity as an Economic Challenge

January 22, 2013 Andy Hoge
Diversity as an Economic Challenge

It seems I can’t get through a day of work without getting an email with a link to a New York Times article describing the latest plight of low-income students trying to make it into college, let alone through graduation.

For the first time since the end of World War II, the socioeconomic status of a family has become one of the greatest predictors of whether the children will attend and graduate from college. As it is today, one in four Americans holds a bachelor’s degree, with a majority of those coming from families with earnings higher than the national median income. Three in four of the students attending the most competitive universities in the country come from families in the top income quartile, while only three percent come from the bottom quartile (“The Reproduction of Privilege” – NYT – March 12, 2012). You can imagine how these numbers relate to racial breakdowns. Blacks and Latinos make up only 10 percent of the top quintile of household incomes while comprising 25 percent of the total households in the U.S. These numbers reveal a terrible truth: socioeconomics is the driving force of the education gap in our country.

Before going any further, diversity needs to be defined. Too often people associate the word with ethnicity or race and not its broader meaning. The word can apply to different skin colors, yes, but also to family backgrounds, genders, viewpoints, sexual orientations, home size, definitions of family vacations, languages spoken, etc. This is the diversity that I am addressing. It is the kind of diversity that makes up our communities and the kind that our educational institutions should be making every effort to incorporate into theirs. By and large, independent schools do a good job balancing many of these various factors of diversity, although when addressing the socioeconomic gap, the availability of financial aid has become more and more a tipping point in recent years.

Independent schools have an incredible opportunity to help reverse the growing education gap by providing a mechanism for students to move from the lowest income brackets into the middle class. Roughly 100,000 students of color have graduated from NAIS high schools since 2004, many of them identified, nurtured, and placed by organizations similar to New Jersey SEEDS. SEEDS is an academic access organization which has supported almost 2,000 high-need students into and through private schools and colleges since 1992. Given the incredible academic and social support at these schools, my assumption is that the vast majority of these students matriculated to college. For SEEDS, we know that approximately 99% of our scholars go to college. Think about the number of lives and the number of families that have been changed through these transformative opportunities. And it is not just the lives of these students that are changed, but the lives of all the members of the school.

For decades, independent schools have embraced the value of diversity on their campuses, understanding that education in its purest form happens when different people with different viewpoints connect with one another. Students, despite socioeconomics, learn from each other through their daily interactions. Remove one from the other and you have a person less prepared for the world beyond college.

But the stark reality is that supporting high-need students costs a lot of money. I would argue that for institutions committed to creating a rich learning environment, this is a critical part of a school’s budget and absolutely needs to be preserved. Not only is it crucial to the health of the school community, it is also significant so that independent schools remain a part of the solution to the growing education gap.

Access organizations like SEEDS have been remarkably successful in creating academic pathways for students most in need in our society. Partnering with independent schools and colleges, access organizations help to identify qualified students and structure support around them to ensure persistence through graduation. The longevity of our programs relies almost entirely on the students’ successes in their placement schools. With the shared goal of student achievement, it is imperative that schools and access organizations partner around the academic and social support of these students, especially in this economic environment, where every dollar counts.

We all have a responsibility for keeping diversity at the front of our conversations and on the agendas of our board meetings. A diverse student body is the only true way to give students a real world education and prepare them for all that lies ahead. Socioeconomic status need not be the defining factor in a child’s life. Working together we can continue to be agents of change for those whose motivation and hunger for education has not been tamped down by financial circumstances.

A wonderful resource for identifying an access organization in your area is the National Partnership for Educational Access (www.educational-access.org).


"The Reproduction of Privilege" - article by Thomas B. Edsall, The New York Times, 3/12/12

National Partnership for Educational Access (www.educational-access.org).

Continuing the Dialogue - Building a Successful Partnership to Achieve Diversity a panel presentation from the 2012 SSATB Annual Meeting, chaired by Sandra Timmons

Nature or Nurture? How We Can Ensure Student of Color Success a presentation at the 2010 SSATB Annual Meeting

Finding the Untapped Jewel in Community-Based Organizations a presentation at the 2009 SSATB Annual Meeting

"Digital Divide Hits College Admission Process" - article by Nora Fleming, Education Week, 12/7/12

"Admitted, but left out" - article by Jenny Anderson, The New York Times, 10/19/12

"Aid Changes Raise Issue of Diversity at Colleges" - article by Richard Perez-Pena, The New York Times, 11/30/12

SSATB Trustee Michael Gary on Inner City Lacrosse - NBC News, 11/30/12

SSATB Trustee Ellen Moceri on the public purpose of private schools - TEDx Coconut Grove

TABS Domestic Diversity Report (membership needed)

NAIS Diversity and Inclusion Center

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