Why Class Diversity Can Be ‘Invisible’ at Colleges

EdSurge Podcast

Why Class Diversity Can Be ‘Invisible’ at Colleges

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 18, 2023

Why Class Diversity Can Be ‘Invisible’ at Colleges

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

“Andrew” grew up in poverty, and neither of his parents went to college. “Carl” grew up in an affluent and well-educated family, with a father who rose through the ranks to become a colonel in the U.S. Army.

Both of these students are Black. And their divergent histories reveal the socioeconomic diversity of Black students who study at the nation’s most selective colleges.

That’s a detail often overlooked in discourse about demographics on campus, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Camille Charles. But it’s revealed by a study that she and colleagues have used for research, called the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, which has followed entering students at a group of 28 selective U.S. colleges since 1999.

Charles, who is a professor of sociology, Africana studies and education at Penn, says that popular perception “would tell us that I should assume that any Black student that I come across is from an impoverished background, probably a single-parent background, and [has] non-home-owning parents [who] didn't go to college.”

Those kinds of students are at colleges, she says, but they are not the majority. Looking at the level of education of parents, for instance, about a third of the Black students in the research sample were from families where neither parent had gone to college. Another third of the Black students in their sample came from families where one parent had completed a college degree, and a third came from families where at least one parent had an advanced degree.

Charles explores the complex stories of the demographics of what she calls the rising Black professional class in her new book, “Young, Gifted and Diverse: Origins of the New Black Elite.

EdSurge sat down with Charles, who also works on efforts to help first-generation college students at Penn, to dig into her findings and what they mean for education at the recent ISTE Live conference in Philadelphia. (EdSurge is an independent newsroom that shares a parent organization with ISTE. Learn more about EdSurge ethics and policies here and supporters here.)

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: You’ve long studied the impact of racial segregation on education. What has your research shown you about the impact of school segregation on the experience of Black college students?

Camille Charles: When I went out into the world as a sociologist, I studied urban inequality broadly speaking. And a big thread has always been the impact of racial segregation in neighborhoods and schools.

We know that segregation concentrates poverty. And so for Black people, coming out of segregated circumstances means that they're coming out of neighborhoods and schools that, on average, are experiencing more violence and social disorder on a day-to-day basis than your average white and Asian student. Because what we found is that white and Asian students were really similar in coming from neighborhoods that were more than 70 percent white. And they were more affluent.

What that meant was that when we looked at exposure to violence and social disorder, for example, in their neighborhoods and schools over the course of their pre-college lives, [Black students] were exposed to something like 17 times more violence and social disorder on average than your typical white and Asian student. It also tends to mean that as a consequence, because they might be, [by] income, middle class, but they are not [by] wealth middle class [from families with large amounts of assets and savings], they're experiencing these kinds of upheavals in their own families as well. So even for an affluent Black student, they usually have immediate family members who are not affluent and who are reliant on them.

And so the other piece that we pay attention to is what we call stressful life events. You know, in the last 12 months has anyone in your immediate family died? Have your parents been out of a job or gotten divorced? Has somebody been the victim of violent crime? … And the Black students experience, on average, one stressful life event a year, where the white and Asian students experience, on average, one over the course of college. So the level of stress is higher.

Could you talk a little bit about the work you do with first-generation college students? And why do you think colleges need to support first-gen students in some special way?

I've been at Penn 25 years now. And when I got to Penn, most of the Black students were coming from under-resourced communities. What was really interesting was the number of white students who would come and talk to me about how they felt invisible because they were also coming from low-income backgrounds — first-gen backgrounds — but nobody at Penn was thinking about white students in that way because the average white student was definitely not that.

So it was really interesting to hear white students talk about how they were having to explain to friends why they couldn't go to Aruba for spring break, or why they were working part-time in the bookstore. Because I was hearing conversations among white students where it was like, ‘Yeah, you know, I'm gonna have to get a job because I spent all the money that my parents gave me for this semester.’ And their friends were like, ‘Dude, just ask them for more.’ But that was foreign to their experience.

So over time though, the composition of the black population has shifted because of diversity [efforts], and the easy way to recruit a diverse class is to look for the Black students and the brown students who have this same profile or as close as possible to the same profile as the white and Asian students from the affluent backgrounds.

And as immigration has increased, immigrants from Africa are the most well-educated immigrants coming to the United States, period. And so African immigrants come from the highest-income families among Blacks. … Two-thirds of African immigrant students are coming from households with two advanced degrees in their households [and want their students to go to a selective college]. So what we've seen over time is that the Black student population is more class diverse.

When I'm wearing my racial inequality hat, I'm saying, ‘You know, don't forget there are white students who are poor and who are the first in their families to go to school. And that not all Black and brown students are poor and in need of financial support, though more of them actually need support than you're thinking about because [of differences in] wealth, and they don't have the same setup. They don't have parents and grandparents that they can ask for additional support.’ So I do wear both hats because I think both things are important.

[Audience Question] What will the impact be if the Supreme Court decides not to allow affirmative action in college admissions? [Editor's note: That decision happened a few days after this interview]

I'm from California, so I know what happens. Let me say that the thing that liberals do badly is preparing for the inevitable. So I think we knew at Bakke [a 1978 Supreme Court decision against affirmative action in admissions in California] that someday we were going to be at this point, and higher education has not thought about how to do things differently in order to maintain diversity.

Somehow we just kept kicking that can down the road. And there has long been a discussion about, ‘Well if we just focused on socioeconomic status, wouldn't [that work]? And the answer has been no, because it's not one or the other, it's both. And so I think that initially you're going to see a dip [in non-white students at selective colleges].

You had a lot of these colleges that really touted having these hugely diverse classes this year because they knew it was the last time they could do admissions the way that they've been doing admissions.

Now the fallacies are that somehow being able to check that you're Black or Latino gets you all of this advantage in admissions, and it doesn't. You get far more advantage from being a legacy student, which is ironic because that just means that your parents did something, right? It doesn't have anything to do with your own ability. But 40 percent of many of these entering classes are legacy kids. And then if those legacy kids apply early decision, it's even higher.

I don’t know what will happen, but I think things will get worse before they get better because I don’t think higher ed is adequately prepared for what's coming.

Listen to the full conversation on this week's EdSurge Podcast.

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