After being in higher education for over forty years, first as a student and then as a college professor, I believe that if you are an American and want to earn a university degree somewhere in our great nation, you should choose your parents wisely. Studies show that not only does the United States have one of the most unequal distributions of wealth and income in the industrialized world, the disparity between our richest and poorest citizens has grown over the last few decades. This upward redistribution of resources has made it much harder for children of poverty and working class parents to gain the education they need to transcend their circumstances of birth. Not surprisingly, other research shows that our major colleges and universities are increasingly becoming the domain of students from privileged origins.
Weigh these rising inequalities against the dominant American mythology that insists formal learning is our great social class leveler. More and more, advocates for this claim must cite exceptions, not averages, to prove their case. Our state and national governments issue well publicized monthly reports on various economic measures, but they rarely, if ever, herald the chances that children from poverty or working class homes will earn a college degree, especially at a prestigious institution. Not publicizing social mobility statistics is politics by omission.
The original G. I. Bill is one of our nation’s most inspiring achievements. It democratized higher learning by helping those who could not have otherwise afforded college.
Today, “diversity” is the rallying cry among many education reformers. They argue that when college students represent a broad mix of demographic characteristics, this enhances educational quality by exposing both teachers and learners to a wider range of ideas. Yet, as some have noted, there has been too little emphasis on economic diversity, meaning recruiting more students of poverty and working class origins to our campuses. Perhaps we have failed in this area because social class remains a taboo topic in America. The popular media mostly ignore the countless ways social class affects the trajectory of our lives, especially when it comes to formal education.
There is a two-part solution to this situation. First, we should pass another measure that reflects the spirit of the G. I. Bill, but direct this legislation toward ensuring that students of humble backgrounds, whether they have served in the military or not, are proportionately represented throughout higher education, so their insights and ideas have a better chance of being heard.
Second, assuming diversity enhances student learning, let’s apply the same standard to faculty recruitment. American higher education should commit itself to hiring more professors of humble origins. The rationale for diversity should apply to both sides of the lectern.
Once begun, these democratizing efforts should be continuously monitored to ensure that the intended reforms are achieved and maintained. Admittedly, some detractors will say the proposed measures are too expensive. This complaint ignores our national history. Americans have always found ways to finance the goals and ideals they believe in. It is time to apply this same view to American higher learning at all levels, including graduate and professional schools. We should remind the world that this country, above any other, believes in and supports equal educational opportunities for all its citizens. Lacking this commitment, we are vulnerable to one of the most damming criticisms any democracy can face. Namely, that they are what we call them: class…..rooms.
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