Community in Higher Education

Primary and secondary education make it a point to try to involve parents in the education process. Just today someone was telling a story about how her child receives checklists from school so that parents know what homework the student should be completing over the week. Schools regularly host parent-teacher conferences. Debates around the merits of a “neighborhood school” versus busing or other means of integration still rage.

Not so much in higher education. It’s as though higher education expects 17-18 year olds to be full formed adults even though part of what we do is shape young people into citizens; at least by the old education is a “public good” standards. We are supposed to know that they aren’t fully formed adults. Yet, why do we cut off their parents abruptly?

With regard to first generation and low-income students cutting off family can be especially traumatic. Research shows that community can be especially important for minoritized students, and first generation and low-income students are similar. When you have had to come together as a community to find ways to defeat racism, or survive fiscally then it can become unfathomable to break from the community when one goes to school. And why should someone do so? The way higher education speaks about access often seems like implicitly marginalized students should reject their home communities and join this “better” way of doing things. The conversation implies that socialization into the academy requires putting away¬† all that came before.

If we are going to meet the access and completion agendas we have to find better ways to incorporate communities into higher education. It is perfectly fine to expose students to new ideas. It is not okay to for educators to bury their heads in the sand and not try to find ways to incorporate students’ culture and home communities into the college going culture and process. There are many skills that marginalized students bring with them that do not fit neatly into existing frameworks, but those skills may be what leads to new ways of thinking, not only in the classroom, but in the workplace.

Building college going cultures requires incorporating whole families so that they understand what their young person is heading off to do, and thus, the family can support it. Building family into the culture also may save dollars because college going programming may not have to be repeated with younger siblings if parents/guardians also learn the process.

At its heart education is a community process and for it to be effective beyond one person then the community has to be involved from start to finish.

Focus on the Low-Income Student

Princeton recently formed a Trustee Ad Hoc Committee on College Access, which intends to increase college access for low-income students. Should the university actually focus on access this development is wonderful news! Socioeconomic status is one of the final social spheres that we don’t want to discuss in society. If we truly want people to be able to help themselves then we as a nation must do more to support the efforts of our young people.

It is my hope that with Princeton focusing on low-income students that other universities will follow suit. It is no secret that many institutions wait to see what the Ivy League does and then drastically tries to copy it even if the ivy institution has a mission statement that is completely different than the “modifying” institution. If Princeton suddenly makes it cool to really focus on the low-income student and his or her experience, especially at the Trustee level, then perhaps the rest of the academy will take notice.

What will ultimately be key however, is whether or not these institutions care as much about the low-income pipeline as it does about the high. Universities have built huge dorms and other fancy facilities in order to attract the wealthy. Some hire all-star faculty as well. Will we see a rise in the number of faculty that represent lower income students? Lower income students tend to come from minority backgrounds, and data already shows that faculty from these backgrounds have difficulty getting hired, and when they do they aren’t promoted and tenured.

The student experience at traditional colleges is very geared to the student who has all of his or her financial obligations met, and can study freely, do undergraduate research, mingle with faculty, etc. A committee on college access has to discuss how non-traditional students can make those same opportunities available to other students.