(Op-Ed) Educational Inequity: Reflecting on Its Complex Causes
Guest contributor: Gabriel E. Marous
When considering the inequities of our current educational system, I can only write this piece from my experience and perspective. That is one of a young black man in America, attending high school at a predominantly white private institution in the affluent, predominantly white town of Westport, Connecticut.
This summer, I attended (remotely) the Yale Young Global Scholars summer program; which brings together a select group of high school students from around the world to delve deeper into a myriad of subjects. The class sizes are quite small, especially when compared to YYGS’ global pool of applicants from over 5,500 high schools worldwide. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that another student in my small group of 13, even within the larger YYGS course, also came from Westport, CT. While this may seem, at first, to be some mundane coincidence, I think that we can extrapolate from this a broader truism about equitable educational access (or the lack thereof) in our society.
Despite the genuine efforts of the YYGS team to create a diverse learning environment, I still found myself in a situation where access to educational resources was provided disproportionately, favoring those of a particular background: one of financial, educational, and/or racial privilege. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a broader trend, namely that, in dealing with issues of diversity and equitable access to education, too often do we settle for conversations about race and gender diversity alone at the expense of discussions on diversity as it relates to socioeconomic status and its corresponding privileges. Far less do we discuss the particularities of the intersections between the three. There seems to be a general sense that by paying attention to one of these areas, we can avoid talking about the others.
Take college recruitment letters for example. According to a recent paper entitled Recruit to Reject? Harvard and African American Applicants by researchers Peter Arcidiacono, Josh Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom, for the class of 2018, Harvard University sent out 114,000 recruitment letters encouraging students, more significantly underrepresented minority students, to apply and admitted just over 2,000. The researchers found that Harvard Admissions sent such letters based on different SAT score cut-offs depending on the race of the potential applicant. For African-American and Hispanic students to be eligible to receive recruitment letters based on an SAT score, students had to score 1170 out of 1600. Ostensibly, this is done to increase the number of underrepresented minority students applying to Harvard The paper found that “almost 50% of those qualifying for a recruiting letter were underrepresented minorities”. However, in Fall 2017, the 25th percentile SAT score among Harvard matriculants was 1460. The authors of the paper argue that Harvard encourages applications from many students, particularly African-American students, “who effectively have no chance of being admitted” simply on the basis of their test scores. The significant gap between the cut-off scores for African-American and Hispanic students to receive recruitment letters and the actual score requirements or trends of matriculating students means that while Harvard appears to be addressing the issue of disproportionate under-representation of African-American and Hispanic students, the change is limited only to diversity within the applicant pool, not the actual student population.
While the initial coverage surrounding this paper was centered around the moral status of this “recruit to reject” policy, it also serves as yet another example of the consequences of looking only at the issue of race as a barrier to equitable access to education at the expense of discussions about other barriers such as socioeconomic status and the intersections between them all. In this way, race becomes a sort of scapegoat for whatever additional issues may be producing the demonstrated outcome. In this case, without getting into the specific debate about standardized testing as a barrier to equitable education, the outcome is that thousands of black and brown highschoolers are systematically rejected from Harvard each Spring on account of their SAT scores despite having been led to believe that they had an equal chance at acceptance. However, rather than recognizing the causes as being tied to the additional challenges and barriers to education that are placed on certain students as a result of their socioeconomic status and adapting its admission policies accordingly, by looking only at race, Harvard is able to avoid making real change by simply pointing to their diverse group of applicants. They are, in effect, sweeping the dust under the rug.
This is not unique to the situation at Harvard, or any other institution of higher education for that matter. On some level, we all try to avoid the deeper complexities of the world because simply put, it is easier. The easier the better right? It is difficult to recognize the fact that the socioeconomic status and level of education of a person’s support system or family plays an important role in determining what kinds of educational resources they will have access to. It is more difficult still to know how to make systemic changes once faced with these facts.
That is how we find ourselves in situations where, while we promote diversity, in this very pursuit we often lose sight of a certain aspect of that diversity, particularly socioeconomic status, and how these various aspects act together intersectionally to influence opportunities for educational access. Those to whom we afford so much power to dictate who has access to what kind of education, so-called gatekeepers of knowledge, must ask themselves the difficult questions like: are we disproportionately accepting a socioeconomically dictated subset of some demographic to stand in for the demographic as a whole? In the realm of educational equity, an area in which a simple change can have significant generational impacts, beneficial or detrimental, it is imperative that we ask ourselves these types of questions. Failure to do so can only maintain the status quo, or lead to increased educational inequity.
Inevitably, I find myself in an awkward position. A black male high school student in an American system that was not built for people like me, yet also as someone born into a family with educational privilege and the knowledge to navigate such a system. Can one be both simultaneously oppressed and privileged? In truth, as a result of the complicated intersectional nature of our identities, we must all, at some point, face similar dichotomies within ourselves and search for our own resolutions. Just as institutions of higher education have a responsibility to look more deeply at the complex issues of educational inequity rather than settling for surface solutions, so too must we, as individuals who care deeply about social justice and inequality, look more critically at our own experience by challenging the complex nature of privilege in all of its various forms.
The opinions expressed in this op-ed represent those of the author(s) only, and Inclusion Advocate's publication of it alone should not be taken as an endorsement.