Are We Giving Access or Preparing for Access?

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There has been a significant amount of conversation about increasing access to higher education, but what does that mean? The Obama administration recently met with members of higher education institutions, the conversations centered on how to get more youth of color into and through higher education. One of the suggested solutions was to beef up high school guidance counseling, so that counselors have smaller caseloads and more college admissions training. High school institutions are grappling with a similar issue; how to get young people of color through high school and into higher education. One of the suggested solutions has been to create multiple pathways, often including a move toward increasing opportunities for remediation outside of the traditional classroom.  But what happens when the floodgates open? When youth of color, given college entrance counseling and equipped with remedial diplomas make it to institutions of higher education? What will guarantee their survival and success?  The conversations being had are missing a very critical element: the difference between “giving” these youth access and “preparing” them for access.  Of course increasing the numbers of youth of color who graduate from high school and make it into college is a worthy goal and an increase in numbers make both high schools and higher education institutions look as if they are successfully working to increase diversity in education. But, the simplistic ways in which this issue is being addressed has led to some simplistic solutions.

To begin with, a deeply rooted and systemic practice of keeping youth of color out of education is still being largely ignored in these conversations, i.e. the school-to-prison pipeline, too few teachers of color, and a lack of diversity in the curriculum, to name a few of the issues. Why is this lack of access still an issue, especially post affirmative action era and with a recent Supreme Court ruling that affirmative action is no longer needed? What happens to youth once they get into higher education? Why aren’t they graduating at the same rates as their white and Asian counterparts? What narrative is being told about these youth and about the roles they play in our society? How does that narrative shape their experiences and encourage or discourage education? These are only a few of the critical questions that must be asked and answered in order to get to the heart of the matter.

Furthermore, the recent emphasis on increasing diversity, especially when looking at the simplicity with which it is being addressed, seems suspicious. What good are we really doing if we dumb down high school to inflate G.P.A.’s and graduation rates? What good will we do if we lower college entrance standards to allow more youth of color access? We now have young people with fewer skills getting into college and while the more resilient ones may make it through and ultimately make the grand scheme appear successful, many more will drop out, except now they will be saddled with student loan debt. It would require a whole other opinion piece to discuss the “degree mills” being made out of many universities in their attempt to profit off of this “increase in access”.

What is really needed is a closer examination of the multi-faceted problem before we can come to a multi-faceted solution. “Giving” access only works short term. We must “prepare” our youth of color for this access. Youth of color should be paired with mentors who help them to navigate high school, college and a career. Mentoring is one of the most critical components, as mentoring relationships have the potential to aid in increased academic success as well as in the expansion of critical networks. High school courses should be rigorous and college focused, preparing youth for the critical reading, thinking and responding they will be required to do in college. Youth of color need to connect with college students and professors who look like them in order to round out the existing narrative about who attends college. And, most importantly, youth of color need to engage in honest conversations about the challenges that come with being a person of color in predominately white and Asian institutions, should they choose to attend one. We must also find a way of addressing those youth who may not want to attend college; the ongoing devaluation of trades and especially of the arts, is also pressing. However, if we are sincere in our efforts to increase the diversity of our higher education institutions, we must not do it by setting up our youth of color for failure, for while the numbers may appear positive, we will end up perpetuating the problems we say we mean to address.

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