April 29, 2017

Politickin’ me off: When it comes to diversity, money matters

There are all kinds of diversity, and for most of those kinds, there’s no better way to find a diverse population than a college campus. Race, national origin, gender, ability, ideology – we’ve got every combination. There’s one type of diversity, though, that makes colleges and often Americans in general, uncomfortable. That’s social class.

If you’re a college student, you’re probably already concerned about student loans, and the closer you get to graduation, the more that balance may loom over your head. Since Donald Trump’s election, that’s been a much bigger concern on America’s campuses.

We’re no longer having debates like we had in the Democratic primary about whether college should be free or simply cheaper. Instead, we’re facing a decrease in available Pell Grant money and more predatory student loan practices. A recent story involves student loan forgiveness, something many graduates count on. Forbes reported that some students who receive a letter stating their loans have been forgiven, after 10 years of qualifying work in public service and 120 consecutive student loan payments, might not be able to rely on that guarantee. The U.S. Department of Education might decide not to honor the letter and collect the rest of their balance anyway.

Many policies have an impact on access to education.  Immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws are just two of those, two important ones. But the most obvious factor in the accessibility is also the most important one, money.

When colleges rally around trans students or Muslims students, there’s no doubt that part of that comes from a genuine commitment to educating and protecting all types of people. However, it should be equally obvious that part of that concern has a monetary motive. If Muslims or trans people don’t feel safe attending a particular college, that college is going to get less of their money.

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Illustration: Sarah Blankenship

Unfortunately, colleges don’t have the safe motive to reassure low-income students. When students don’t come to school because they don’t have the money for it, well, no money is lost. But something else is.

Every student suffers when student loans become as burdensome as they are now, or worsen in the way they’re likely to in the future. But some students suffer more than others, and those are the students who come from lower income families, whose parents did not attend college, who graduated from under performing and underfunded public schools.  In short, students who have a different life experience than the majority of those attending private universities.

That should be a diversity concern for colleges, in the same way that we understand it would be a diversity concern if it were much harder for women to attend college, or LGBT students or non-white students.

In fact, it’s exactly the same, because all of those groups face disproportionate levels of poverty.

Charging tuition is what keeps private colleges afloat, and there’s nothing wrong with the concept of a private college. They provide unique educational experiences that state-sponsored colleges don’t, and higher tuition is generally a necessity for colleges that aren’t receiving state subsidies to help them stay afloat.

At the same time, colleges like Webster deeply value their diversity. Diversity in other areas is going to seem pretty hollow if college becomes inaccessible to all but the most financially well-off, and that’s a reality which seems to be getting closer and closer for America. The last thing any liberal-minded institution which values diversity should want to return to the days when higher education was exclusively for the higher class.

So what should colleges do in response? They should do what they do in response to other attacks on diversity. They should issue statements assuring students they are on their side, hold meetings and town halls about how to deal with the issue and join with national organizations to lobby for policies that benefit students. Educating students from every class should be part of the mission of every university. Without them, colleges suffer, and so does the country.

In the age of President Trump, colleges need to look out for their students’ feelings. But they also need to do something which can be a lot harder and involve a lot more sacrifice – look out for their finances.

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