I hope you all had a nice Thanksgiving holiday. One aspect of the holiday I always enjoy—although not this year—is to explain to a distant family member what I actually do for a living.
Since taking the helm at Baruch in July, I have received occasional comments wondering why I have taken a “socio-political” position for the institution rather than focusing on our research and teaching mission. While repeatedly addressing socioeconomic and broader higher ed issues seems more at home in a politician’s wheelhouse and a bit out of place for an educator and a college president, I am doing so somewhat intentionally—but why? Inspired by the Thanksgiving table conversation I didn’t get to have this year, I want to explore this a bit in this blog.
Why Does the Big Picture Matter?
Prior to taking my first public university position several years ago, I spent 28 years at a selective private institution and immersed myself in the ethos of research, teaching, and other purely academic endeavors. Quality, rigor, and academic excellence were the main focus. I used to think, “A university is a university, why does it matter if it is public or private?” Everything, as it turns out.
It was a moment of reckoning for me to realize that the students we serve truly come from all walks of life and all socioeconomic classes. In order to level the playing field so they all have a fair shot to succeed in the classroom, we need to be concerned about what they are dealing with outside the classroom—their ability to balance the struggles of family obligations, the jobs that keep them financially afloat, and for many, basic shelter and food security.
What most of our students have in common is a burning desire to succeed and an intellectual capacity that is no less than any elite college students I have encountered. To achieve career outcomes comparable to their elite college peers, we also need to build their sense of confidence, poise, and social comfort so they are able to overcome the insecurities of falling prey to conforming to the stereotypes regarding their social group. Doing so allows our diamonds in the rough the opportunity to shine because they are also equipped with grit, life experience, and an ingrained ability to adapt to and overcome adversity. Most importantly, the diversity of our students injects fresh perspectives for the workplace that become the source of creativity and innovation. The Wall Street Journal’s 2019 corporate ranking examined diversity and inclusion among S&P 500 companies and concluded that “Diverse and inclusive cultures are providing companies with a competitive edge over their peers.” If this reminds you of the source of vibrancy in America, brought by immigration and social mobility, you are starting to see the bigger picture.
In my second blog, I wrote of “reimagining higher education” and “institutional isomorphism.” I did so to argue that if we as educators choose to focus only on teaching and scholarship and ignore our larger responsibilities of igniting thought and social change, we will perpetuate the isomorphism and our system will continue to be out of step with society. And, as a result, millions will be denied access to their American Dream.
Education and the Class Divide?
A well-known study, tracking some 30 million students over a decade in nearly all U.S. colleges, found that students from families in the top 1 percent income level are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than those from the bottom quartile. The same study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than the entire bottom 60 percent combined. It is important to note that low-income students who attend top colleges perform just as well as their classmates. This is only one study among many which finds that a college education is not only a deepening line of class division—it threatens our very idea of meritocracy. The U.S. is now the least economically mobile among all developed nations—the chances today’s 35-year-old will earn more than their parents when they were 35 has plummeted to under 50 percent from over 90 percent just a generation ago. If student debt is taken into consideration, the situation becomes much worse.
If education has become a class divider—instead of being the great equalizer—something has gone wrong in our system, and it is very much our responsibility to understand why and how to fix it. Too many young adults are starting their lives under a blanket of college debt while others have the debt but no degree because they could not, for a variety of reasons, continue to attend.
Our system of higher education has developed into this isomorphism that perpetuates the divide, making the wrong assumption that academic excellence and social mobility are competing ideas that one must make a choice—the idea that admitting students from a certain social class will degrade the academic standard. Just this month, we learned that Baruch is ranked number one in the Social Mobility Index—six years in a row—and many of our academic programs are ranked top in the country, making us an “elite college” that has 37 times more students from the bottom 60 percent than the top 1 percent.
Where Do We Go from Here?
You may wonder about the connection of your daily work to these seemingly abstract, big picture ideas. But it is the daily work we do that puts us on this path and although daunting at times, staying on that path requires courage, persistence, imagination, and innovation. More importantly, it requires us to have a deep understanding of our role in our socio-political context because that has everything to do with the choices we make and the priorities we set for ourselves.
This is what I see for Baruch and the students we serve. If we are known to be something in the socio-political big picture, I hope it is for showing that academic excellence and social mobility are not competing but complementary ideas—the opportunity for high-quality education should be accessible to those who have the desire and ability, no matter their socioeconomic background. In doing so, we are taking the lead in returning higher education to what Horace Mann has described in 1848, as “the great equalizer” and “the balance wheel of the social machinery.”