Engineered for Inequality: Calls from an Access Conference for Reimagining Higher Education in America

Luke Chitwood
Jun 3 · 5 min read

On any given day, most of the 2019 National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA) conference-goers live and work in predominantly white spaces, wealthy spaces, privileged spaces. They climb stairs in towers of ivory, lowering ladders to those deterred by the ornate, antique doors.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way.

Photo by Ken Theimer on Unsplash

NPEA is a membership organization that connects people, practices, and innovations, eliminating barriers to educational access and college and career success for underserved students. Founded in 2007 by The Steppingstone Foundation, a non-profit that develops educational opportunity and college success programs, NPEA aims to increase student access and success through collaboration and shared expertise. Of the 500,000+ students served annually by NPEA’s 340 member organizations, 72% are or will be first-generation college students, and a majority are students of color.

In her opening plenary, NPEA Executive Director Karin Elliott introduced the conference’s 2019 theme, Raising Our Voices. She implored the 400+ higher education and college access professionals in attendance to contemplate: “How will you raise your voices?” This clarion call aimed to activate impact beyond the context of the conference.

Facilitators of one interactive workshop on uncomfortable conversations and implicit bias acknowledged as much, noting that participants’ willingness to learn was encouraging, but the message must ultimately reach those less amenable to the ideas.

Several speakers posited more unconventional pathways to access and equity. Donnell Butler, Senior Associate Dean for Planning and Analysis of Student Outcomes at Franklin & Marshall, underscored that U.S. institutions of higher learning are simply doing what they were built to do. Higher education (especially its elite institutions) largely started as finishing schools for the offspring of the rich and influential. Hundreds of years later, it still connects these privileged young people with more of the same, and ushers them into an adulthood carefully designed to maintain generational wealth. Granted, societal pressures, white guilt, and rhetoric about the widespread benefits of diversity have made college campuses a bit more colorful than they were in past centuries. But it’s no accident that Ivy League colleges have more students from the top 1% than the bottom 50% of the income distribution. Nor is it coincidental that Harvard enrolls nearly twice as many legacy (of whom 90%+ are white) as African American students.

Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir’s keynote remarks echoed Dr. Butler’s rejection of this notion of “accidental” inequity in American education. Dr. Nasir addressed the tension between activism and self-preservation that people of color navigate in America today. She shared candidly of times she’d urged her teenage son to conform to societal expectations or tone down his protests, while at the same time admitting that “telling young black people to adapt to systems” often defies logic. “The logical thing to do — if the system is unjust — isn’t to just conform and adapt.”

These scholars each made compelling arguments for the implicit whiteness of systems and spaces in America, and the urgent need to develop alternatives (specifically, for the NPEA conference audience, within higher education). Butler outlined in his presentation what he envisioned in a school designed from the ground up for first-generation, low-income students.

Any institution adhering to traditional funding models that prioritize legacy, donor potential, and other markers of generational wealth (including an overreliance on standardized testing, such as the SATs) are constrained from ever becoming truly equitable spaces, Butler argued. Currently, the communities dedicated to access, education, public policy, and philanthropy expend enormous energy and resources trying to fit students into spaces designed to exclude. Butler urged them instead to join forces to create and fund institutions built on research-validated practices that drive first-generation, low-income student success (defined as persistence through graduation, rather than mere “access,” or admission and enrollment).

A few of these recommendations include: investing in college transition supports, prioritizing faculty teaching over research, developing early-intervention systems to identify struggling students, and partnering with civic, corporate, and community partners to create work-based alternatives to lessen students’ financial pressures and debt.

Among the identity and equity issues highlighted in conference keynotes and workshops, conversations on race featured prominently. Conference organizers (including NPEA’s advisory board and a heavily-local planning committee) focus intentionally on reflecting their host city’s unique history, culture, challenges, and strengths. Dr. Eve Ewing and Dr. Nasir alike reminded attendees that the Windy City’s national reputation for violence, corruption, and segregation is not some regrettable accident (and thus unavoidable). To tell Chicago’s story is to fundamentally engage with racism in America.

In her 2018 book Ghosts in the Schoolyard, Ewing unpacks and debunks the clinical reasoning rolled out by Chicago Public Schools and the City of Chicago for closing 50+ schools in 2013. She takes her audience on a tour of 20th century Chicago’s explicitly racist policies, specifically related to housing and education. Ewing’s argument underscores that Chicago’s status quo is racism. Wherever this is true, justice demands acknowledging, challenging, and unseating systemic inequalities.

In part, we acknowledge because, as the adage goes, those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. But acknowledgement is not solely to protect us from some potential evil somewhere down the road. It’s powerful and vital in the here-and-now to recognize the patterns and systems (and intimate, individual choices) in American education that got us to where we are today. In approaching communities affected by the 2013 school closings, Ewing opted first to listen, and calls on others to do the same. Instead of proposing an alternative slate of policy initiatives, Ewing charts a more countercultural course — she amplifies the voices of those whose protests went unheard.

Dr. Ewing delivered her address to a room full of practitioners, experts, and others intimately aware of the impediments to equity and access in American education. Few groups are more motivated to develop innovative and practicable solutions. Considering the attendees, it’s telling that the NPEA conference’s conclusion advocated for the most simple, most human — and, perhaps, most costly — path to overturn inequality.

If practitioners and allies affirm the innate value of those they’re purporting to serve, then there’s a primary course of action that supersedes even “raising our voices.” The call is to listen, and to mourn. Mourning, for things are not as they should be — that much was not news to anyone in the room.

And listening, because value, beauty, knowledge, and talent are equally distributed across the population, even if some communities are “underserved,” “under-resourced,” and afforded unequal access to opportunities. Value, beauty, knowledge, talent — and the harm caused to all when society ignores them — are present now — not in some far off future day, when problems are solved, resources fairly distributed, and equity “restored.”

So, what can you do today? Listen to someone whom you’d otherwise ignore. Identify someone you believe needs your help — and humble yourself to learn from them. This is a decidedly un-American approach to equity, and that is no accident. A paradigm shift is necessary to break patterns where even well-intentioned efforts undervalue and oppress segments of the population. The greatest value is not something you will invest in someone; it’s already there, in them, waiting for you to notice, to affirm — to listen. Once you listen, raising your voice is inevitable.

Luke Chitwood

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Writer, Storyteller, Problem-Solver. Beginner-level Husband and Father. Coffee drinker since age 1. #CollegeAccess, #Writing, & #HigherEd.