Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Little History

In October I visited UW-Madison to speak at events that WCSU hosted for their Working Class Celebration Month. Before traveling to Madison, I web searched information about the class origins of UW undergraduates. Among others, I found Richard Kahlenberg's review of data that led him to conclude that the "University of Wisconsin – Madison [r]anks [p]oorly on SES [d]iversity." He based this claim, in part, on information showing that in 2007 only 13.1% of these students were receiving Pell Grants, placing UW 41st out of 43 of the nation's flagship universities on this measure of social class diversity. Elsewhere, Kahlenberg determined that UW ranked 30th out of 43 of the nation's major campuses on what he called the Low-Income Student Access Ratio at Selected Flagship Public Universities, another measure of equal opportunity in higher learning. Finally, Kahlenberg recommended that UW abandon its practice of favoring alumni children when deciding admissions. According to the title of a book he edited, he deems this practice Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions (2010). UW officials still favor legacies, notwithstanding Kahlenberg's recommendation as well as its stated devotion to: "Equal Opportunity: The UW System is committed to equal opportunity for all. No student may be denied admission to, participation in or the benefits of, or be discriminated against in any service, program, course or facility of the system or its institutions because of the student's race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, disability, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status or PARENTAL STATUS" (emphasis added).

After reviewing Kahlenberg's writings, I read an earlier study that concluded:

Over the past decade, the percentage of low-income students on this campus (small to begin with) has fallen sharply. In the class entering in 2002, fewer than 7 percent came from families earning $28,000 or less [the lowest quintile] while more than 34 per cent came from families earning $87,000 or more [the highest quintile] (2005).

In other words, there were five times more instate UW freshmen from families in the top income quintile than students from families in the lowest income quintile. Moreover, the report showed a strong relationship between family income and the percent of students in each quintile. **See quintile graph.

These disparities have likely understated the true extent of socioeconomic inequalities among UW undergraduates, as research shows that students from lower income families are more likely to drop out sometime before graduating compared to their cohorts of wealthier origins.

In Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities (2006), Gerald and Haycock gave UW an F grade for both "Low-Income Access" and "Progress in Low-Income Access."
Working Toward the Future

I offer the preceding facts and comments to say the Working Class Student Union (WCSU) is a welcomed addition to the UW campus. I applaud Chynna Haas for founding WCSU in 2007. After spending time with Dena Ohlinger, WCSU's current president, and Lori Randall, its outreach director, I know the organization has strong leadership. Based on my readings about UW and my various interactions while on campus, I offer the following suggestions for further expanding WCSU operations:

First, I urge current and future WCSU members to recruit more UW faculty, administrators, and staff to their cause. These individuals can offer WCSU members invaluable insights about issues ranging from student recruitment, to financial aid, study skills, selecting academic majors and minors, career options, resume and cover letter writing, simulating job and professional school interviews, attending graduate and professional schools via fellowships and assistant-ships and so forth.

Second, WCSU's leadership should press UW officials to include socioeconomic origins among the university's "affirmative action" and "diversity" concerns. Expanding these definitions in this way would give further impetus to many recommendations listed in Restoring Access at UW-Madison: A Report from the 2004-05 Committee on Undergraduate Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid (2005), including specialized outreach programs directed toward bringing more working class students to campus and once enrolled offering them the attention and resources necessary for success.

Third, the WCSU leadership should work with University officials to begin gathering more detailed information about the socioeconomic origins of UW students. The current application form simply asks "Has either of your parents earned a four-year college/university degree? Yes or No." UW should revise its application form to include detailed questions about parental education, occupation, and family income. I would ask all UW applicants to voluntarily provide this socioeconomic information about both parents (stepparents, caretakers, or guardians).

Fourth, university officials should annually provide WCSU with a data set containing this more detailed information about parental occupation, income, and education. WCSU should task one or two of its student members with analyzing these statistics with an eye toward identifying major trends and relevant concerns. After just one year of gathering and studying this quantitative information, WCSU members will appreciate even more the power derived from having and knowing statistics relevant to the organization's objectives.

Fifth, I encourage WCSU members to work with university officials to recruit and hire more faculty and administrators who were first-generation college and of working class origins. As various studies have shown, socioeconomic background strongly predicts who will become a college professor or administrator. Currently, university officials collect and hold various demographic statistics about UW faculty and administrators, but they gather no information about their socioeconomic origins. As part of its diversity efforts, university officials should gather and maintain class background information about these individuals. Each year, the assembled data should be made available to the WCSU members responsible for conducting the statistical studies mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Sixth, I urge the WCSU leadership to direct a special effort toward enrolling members who are studying for the PhD. Most doctoral students have acquired considerable research skills that will allow them to write dissertations on topics relevant to WCSU concerns, such as developing policies meant to bring more working class students to the UM campus. The list of possible research topics is limitless.

Finally, according to Opportunity Adrift: Our Flagship Universities are Straying from Their Public Mission (2010, p. 10), "Several flagship universities have recognized the need to increase the access and success of low-income and minority students and are making concerted efforts to improve." UW is one of the roughly dozen colleges participating in "Access to Success Initiative." Members of this collective are committed to "pursu[ing] aggressive goals aimed at improving student success and cutting in half by 2015 the gaps in college-going and completion that separate low income and minority students from their peers." I urge WCSU members to work closely with UW officials who are part of this Access to Success Initiative in terms of recruiting and admitting more working class students to the Madison campus. WCSU members can provide invaluable insights to the university's leadership in regard to achieving these worthwhile objectives.

As I was driving home from Madison, I kept wondering why most campuses, especially the country's other flagship universities and most of its leading private colleges, do not have their own versions of WCSU. As various published studies show, the time is right for all democratic minded students, faculty and administrators to contact WCSU for advice about establishing a similar organization on their campuses. Lead on WCSU. You are on the right side of history.

Kahlenberg, R. Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy preferences in college admissions. 2010. New York: Century Foundation Press.

Restoring Access at UW-Madison: A report from the 2004-05 committee on undergraduate recruitment, admissions and financial aid. 2005.

Gerald & Haycock. Engines of Inequality: Diminishing Equity in the Nation’s Premier Public Universities. 2006.

Written by our Working Class Celebration Month Keynote speaker, Kenneth Oldfield, an emeritus professor of public administration at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He has spent the last decade publishing articles and a book (with co-editor Richard Johnson) about first generation college students of working class origins.