Diversity Blast, 12/3: Higher Education

Hey all!

Happy Tuesday, happy 7th night of Hannukah and happy last month of the calendar year!

The theme of this edition of the blast is higher education. With college application deadlines looming, this time of year finds many of America’s young people fretting over their extracurricular activities, distilling themselves into personal essays and hounding their teachers for recommendation letters. In the eyes of too many of America’s students, however, college is an impossibility, and the obstacles of merely applying confusing and daunting. This is especially true for many of our students: students from low-income families and students of color. Even one of the simplest tasks in the admissions process—paying the university’s application fee—can cause major delays, or even deterrence from applying altogether. And while many institutions have become more aware of the financial burdens of applying to college, the application fee is only one of many complex and frustrating financial barriers students will encounter in higher education, such as applying for FAFSA, accepting loans and simply affording meals on days when the dining hall is closed. What’s more, low-income and minority students in higher education can often feel their differences from their peers in stark and unsettling ways that can leave them feeling alone, invisible or misunderstood. This week’s blast will explore the persistent challenges our students face and the questions raised when it comes to higher education, including:

  • Why aren’t highly-qualified low-income students applying to the country’s most selective colleges and universities?
  • What happens when people from low-income and/or minority backgrounds enter spaces that, frankly, weren’t designed to educate them until very recently, if at all?
  • How do students from underrepresented backgrounds navigate the persistent reminders of their Otherness without becoming discouraged?
  • What are colleges and universities doing to be culturally responsive to all students?
  • How are the faculty hiring practices of colleges and universities reflective of the changing face of America’s student body?

Let’s dive in!

On Poverty and Higher Education:

‘The Challenge of Being Poor at America’s Richest CollegesThis piece speaks to both the structural and day-to-day difficulties faced by students from low-income backgrounds in some of the nation’s most selective colleges.

‘College Application Intimidating to Some’The barriers faced by low-income, minority and/or low-college-exposure students when it comes to the college application process

‘’No Point in Applying’: Why Poor Students are Missing at Top Colleges’From the article, “High achieving low-income students too often don’t know that they have a good chance of getting into—and affording—an elite school.”


 On Race and Higher Education:

 ‘Higher Education is ‘Separate and Unequal’ for Minority Students’: A recent report finds that Hispanic and African-American students with a 3.5 GPA in high school were much more likely to attend a community college than their white counterparts. The report also found that low-income students who took out loans were more likely to drop out and more likely to default on those loans even when they graduate. The study points to this figure as a reason why so many of the nation’s colleges are still not “need-blind” when it comes to admissions. Put simply, low-income students are seen not as a boon, but as a potential liability.

‘Why Are Underrepresented Minorities Underachieving in STEM Education?’An exploration into gender, race and higher education in the STEM field.

‘Report Finds Demographics of College Graduates Do Not Reflect Changes in Overall Student Body’: A study from the American Council on Education found that while the student bodies of colleges have grown more diverse, the pool of students who actually make it to graduation is still overwhelmingly white with 3 out of 4 BA recipients identifying as white.

Statistics on education barriers for students who identify as Latino or HispanicWhile they constitute the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in America, Latinos are disproportionately underrepresented in higher education due to a variety of barriers from legal status to the economic demands on new immigrant families.

Teaching While Black and Blue’: Shannon Gibney, a writer, educator and activist in Minneapolis, describes the systems of privilege at work in her university, as well as the challenges she faced in addressing the persistent problems of race at the school. Gibney’s narrative is especially poignant when considering the systems our students will enter in college and raises the question of the burdens on faculty members from diverse backgrounds. Is also just a good read.

Initiatives and Resources: While much of this paints a portrait of inequity, it’s important to note that there are a number of groups working to make both college admission and college completion happen: student-led affinity groups aimed at promoting social action and building community, non-profit organizations and states themselves. Check out a few of the organizations and resources listed below!

The College Board’s nudge to poorer studentsIn order to address the low college application rates of qualified low-income students, the College Board has begun to send a package of application resources, fee waivers to six colleges of the student’s choice and other motivating materials to students who score high on the SAT and identify as low-income. They’ve already sent 28,000 packets to high school seniors!

QuestBridgeQuestBridge partners with some of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities across the country to bring high achieving low-income students through their doors.  They now have a network of over 6,000 scholars across the country. You can refer your students to QuestBridge or students can nominate themselves. What’s more, QuestBridge empowers current and past scholars to own individual campus chapters of QuestBridge scholars. I’m especially fond of this page from my alma mater’s chapter. I spy some future TFA prospects J. I love that QuestBridge is an online meeting platform because students can access services from mobile devices as well as traditional platforms, and it allows students in even remote areas of access to tap into a network of peers and mentors.

  • Questbridge Educator’s Resource Page: The educators’ resource page provides tools for teachers to help students navigate the college application process, understand deadlines and get connected to resources.

Beyond ZAt New Hire Orientation last month, I met Iris Chen. She was a founding member of the New York region, later became the region’s Executive Director, and has now launched Beyond Z. Beyond Z bears similarities to a few existing programs, like Breakthrough and LEDA, which aim to bring low-income and minority students to the table of higher education; however, what is markedly different about the approach Chen and her team are piloting is that it is a pipeline through and beyond college to careers of high influence and impact. The pipeline begins in third grade, and develops students’ leadership through hands on experiences. Beyond Z is still in the planning phase (and currently hiring for those curious), but it was hard not to be absolutely enthralled by Iris’s game plan. Keep your eye on this organization!

6 FAQ’s on the new Common Application: For anyone who hasn’t been too hip to the college admissions game of late, the Common Application (used by roughly 500 colleges and universities) has undergone some changes aimed at making the application process more user-friendly and comprehensive. Check out this simple and easy-to-understand guide on some of the confusing aspects of the Common App.

Diverse Issues in Education: This online mag is a great resource for teachers, education professionals, and anyone interested in exploring how identity plays out both in higher education access and leadership.

(PBS Video) Low-income students to overcome ‘aristocracy’ of higher ed (skip to 1 min) The Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) aims to close the economic and opportunity gaps in America. LEDA offers tutoring and admissions guidance for rising seniors, and four years of financial support in college. This would be great to share with students—plenty of reflective student interviews, statistics and explains why it’s financially beneficial to attend a more successful college. Specifically, top schools tend to provide much more generous financial aid due to larger and top scholars at selective schools graduate at about twice the rate of scholars at non-selective colleges.

Tennessee’s initiative, CollegeforTN.org: Super exciting! A couple months ago, we met Kate Derrick and Kate Watts from the College for Tennessee initiative and Tennessee’s Drive to 55. The CollegeforTN website has loads of resources for students and teachers for everyone from graduating seniors to elementary school students.


With so much in flux for many of our students and their families, college graduation might seem like a remote prospect when compared to what our students need on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, getting low-income and minority students to college at all, as an array of statistics can tell us, is difficult in and of itself. But if we as a society are to have a shot at upending our history of separate and unequal education, then we cannot afford to do anything less than dream big and push our students. In college, I met twin brothers, Daniel and Gabriel, both 1st generation college students born in Panama. They often spoke about their father, who insisted, even when it didn’t seem fun or fair, that his sons work as hard as possible at their school work. He didn’t know their daily routines at Columbia or what went into their economics, philosophy and core curriculum classes, but he was certain that it was all of the utmost importance. They said he would often repeat a maxim that became very familiar to Daniel and Gabriel over the years: “An education is the only thing you can buy that does not depreciate in value.” Both sons were glad that he did.

With hope, love and love of learning.


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