Expanding Diversity

For the last three summers I have run a small program to bring high-school students from underrepresented minority groups to my university for four weeks during the summer to take a course and work in my lab. All of these students have come from highly-underperforming school districts and have done really well and have been admitted into very good colleges. This program is the result of my “broader impacts” section of an NSF award I have, and I encourage other people to propose such programs when writing their grants (if you need some advice on designing such a program contact me). My university also runs a much larger program for undergraduates from underrepresented minority groups to do research during the summer in top labs throughout the country. Again this provides a great opportunity to a group of good students. I think these programs are laudable for their goal of trying to increase diversity in the sciences and for giving students from underrepresented groups a chance that they might not normally have.

For the most part, in these programs the definition of enhancing diversity in sciences and other academic fields means increasing participation of minorities (and women) within the sciences. However, I’ve started to think that this is a somewhat narrow view of what diversity should mean. In my view, the current rationale for providing programs to help minority students is that these students traditionally don’t have access to the same type of educational resources as non-minorities do. This is due in part to the fact that many come from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas which simply do not have the same resources and academic support networks. Yet, there are several other people who also do not have access to these resources because they also come from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, but just not happen to be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority group. I think it would make a lot of sense to expand our definition of diversity to include socioeconomic diversity, since this would be a way to reach a larger group of folks, rather than just using race or ethnicity as a criteria to define who is an “underrepresented group”.

Let me give you an example. I do a fair bit of advising to undergraduates at my institution, both first-years and sophomores as well as ones majoring in my discipline. Many of them are first generation college students, meaning that they are the first in their family to go to college. Since this is a private university, the socioeconomic disparities between students can be huge, and some of these first generation college students have expressed concern that there is no support network for them. My university has gone through great lengths to establish mentoring, support and affinity groups for minority students, but nothing for these first generation students, who although they are not minorities, they have a lot more in common in therms of the college experience with the minority groups than with other non-minorities on campus. Some have mentioned that they have forgone the chance to do research over the summer because they cannot afford it and there are only a few special fellowship programs they can apply for. Likewise, volunteering in a lab during the semester is not an option because they need to use their spare time to work. This would over time limit the representation of this group in the sciences, and obviously they could benefit from more widely available programs.

Expanding the definition of diversity to include socioeconomic diversity is not as simple as it sounds. While it is relatively straightforward to assess racial or ethnic diversity in a given academic field, how do you asses socioeconomic diversity? Do you ask people their income? Presumably by the time someone gets a job, the socioeconomic discrepancies start to become less evident. So it is important to do this at the high-school and college levels, where opportunities can be provided to people who could benefit from them but who do not fit into the typical categories of an underrepresented minority.

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17 Responses to Expanding Diversity

  1. lost academic says:

    “Presumably by the time someone gets a job, the socioeconomic discrepancies start to become less evident.”

    I might challenge that. If we took a fairly narrow view of success and opportunity for an individual, this can certainly be true – once someone has graduated from a university and acquired a position (assuming it’s on par with what their degree, university and industry typically place new students in) it is possible to consider the disadvantages to be surpassed. But there are a large number of factors, tangible and intangible, that I can think of off the top of my head that will still face socioeconomically disadvantaged students even once they are gainfully employed. Tangibly, many wealthier students have a large support network in the form of their family and its financial or time resources. Things like buying a home, moving, getting married are significantly impacted by the resources an individual has at hand, which wouldn’t typically limited to personal ones.

    Intangibly, there are also a world of things that impact the first job: where is it, what’s the offer, was the salary negotiated, what are the promotion potentials, and so on, but then also with the next job, and the next – professional networking skills, to use a catch-all term. A lot of those are things you might not learn or experience until you’re in such a position, but previous experience secondhand with those kind of efforts are going to give individuals from wealthier families a leg up on the competition.

    For my own personal anecdote: I came from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background and went to a top tier private university. There were many situations in which this was irrelevant, but under the surface, even more where it really was. I might have comparable personal wealth or discretionary income to some other students (well, not really, but not as far off as with others) but when it came down to other things – transportation, summer employment over internships, housing, traveling for interviews, CLOTHES for interviews, time spent improving academically over working – the gap widens. Moreso, the older I got the more I realized that even what we might consider to be middle or upper middle class students had long term savings in terms of stocks, bonds, let alone trust funds set up by family. These things could be used as a safety net, or to help purchase that first home, car, to take vacations, to move across the country. Families were sources of gifts of money for larger things, or at least, loans. What’s just as important as the actual limit of those things is the perceived limitations that people from such a background have: they know what they have and what they don’t, and it creates a box around what they think they can do, real or otherwise.

    • namnezia says:

      Thanks for your response – I didn’t mean to say that the disparities don’t persist, they’re just harder to assess from the outside. I think your response more clearly states what I was trying to say in my post.

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  3. This is an awesome post, and truly an important issue. My PhD U had a separate program for economically disadvantaged undergrad students similar to their program for underrepresented minorities, and it was a huge success. I think there is not enough attention paid to these kinds of issues in this country due to the myth of upward social mobility.

  4. Isabel says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been saying this for some time on the academic blogs. I would also point out that the underprivileged white students have to deal with everyday prejudices that the more well-off students are not even aware they have. Not the least of which is scapegoating less privileged whites as racists and mocking them as rubes, often not even realizing that someone present is from such a background, as lower class white students are, as you point out, not easily identified.

    The discrepancy you point out is widest in grad schools, although this is rarely acknowledged. Incidentally, the community college I did my science undergrad classes at had a great program (the name of it escapes me at the moment) for students in STEM fields that included lower socioeconomic groups by asking questions such as parental educational attainment.

  5. drugmonkey says:

    Your University is well behind the times. Despite what Isabel would like to believe, “first generation college student” and similar code words for disadvantaged whites have been part of diversity initiatives for a long time.

  6. drugmonkey says:

    With respect to the NIH, read the eligibility criteria carefully.

    track back and forth in time for this program and see when and how eligibility criteria have changed.

    • namnezia says:

      Thanks for the link… I had not read the eligibility criteria closely enough. There’s one bit that emphasizes what I was trying to say about identifying individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at later stages:

      “2. Come from a social, cultural, or educational environment such as that found in certain rural or inner-city environments that have demonstrably and recently directly inhibited the individual from obtaining the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to develop and participate in a research career. Eligibility related to a disadvantaged background is most applicable to high school and perhaps to undergraduate candidates, but would be more difficult to justify for individuals beyond that level of academic achievement.”

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  8. Hope says:

    Bravo! So glad that someone with their own blog finally made this point, because I can tell you that bringing this up as commenter is an incredibly frustrating experience.

    Despite what DM would like to believe, socioeconomic status has *not* been a part of most diversity efforts for a long time … unless a long time means 3-5 yrs. In any case, it is most certainly not a consideration with all government funding agencies, and most universities are playing catch-up on this front. So yes, the point needs to be made. (And I’m actually impressed that DM managed to restrain himself and not accuse you of mouthing an anti-diversity talking point.)

    Lost academic’s experience definitely resonates with me, but I am not too concerned with socioeconomic diversity in the workplace. Work and school have different missions, and there’s no reason that affirmative action should be implemented in the same way in both environments. I agree that high school and college (and maybe grad school) is where the focus needs to be.

  9. Isabel says:

    “Your University is well behind the times. Despite what Isabel would like to believe, “first generation college student” and similar code words for disadvantaged whites have been part of diversity initiatives for a long time.”

    What are you talking about? I just said my community college had such a program that was well established years ago. I said it was not taken seriously in the blog’o’sphere and at the grad school level. What university has such a program at the grad level, DM? For example it didn’t help me get into, or succeed at my current grad program.

    Also, code word?? WTF? – most of the documented “first generation college students” that my uni is so proud of are 1)undergrads 2)Asian-American

    get with the times bro!

  10. Isabel says:

    Also, many under-privileged whites feel that they are the ones, rather than the privileged whites, who are stepping aside and making room for minorities. I have seen evidence that they may be on to something there…yet when they bring it up it leads to a lot of name-calling. I would just like to see the people doing the name calling make a sacrifice once in a while. But I’m still waiting DM!

  11. Isabel says:

    Also DM, I need to remind you once again that you are not a member of my group that has experienced this oppression, so it goes against all your previously stated principles to discount my experience and tell me how I should more properly be experiencing my oppression. You need to learn to shut up and listen. Or make a fucking case that classism does not exist and all white people are equal.

    It’s funny but your pal CPP was recently commenting on the mental contortions of that ol’ scapegoat, the conservatives. But it’s also quite a contortion to imagine our stratified society as an INVERTED pyramid, with all the whites on top living high on the hog, and the minorities at the bottom doing all the work.

  12. drugmonkey says:

    Of course, Straw-abel, I never suggest that class is *not* an issue. Nor that all pale folk are identical. As far as discounting your experience? Well true, I do maintain that in the final analysis of socioeconomic equals, being perceived as white gets you extra privilege. This is the part that you refuse to address in your zeal to compare apples to oranges.

    “stepping aside”? And why us it that such folks blame their socioeconomic cotravelers that happen to be brown rather than the wealthy common enemy that happens to share skin color with them? I don’t believe you’ve ever properly addressed the BM’s repeated probing of your position on this…

  13. Isabel says:

    “Well true, I do maintain that in the final analysis of socioeconomic equals, being perceived as white gets you extra privilege.”

    Another brilliant scientist who cannot juggle three variables. Because lower class whites *may* have more privilege than lower class black and brown people, all whites, rich and poor, can be treated as a group when we are discussing privilege. We can give classism lip service, but any more would be racist. Makes total sense.

    And while it is incredibly vile for a white person to have any opinion whatsoever about how a brown person is experiencing racism – if they say they are they are, and we should only shut up and listen and learn; If a lower class person is describing their experiences (as one grad student did eloquently on Zuska’s blog recently for example, perfectly illustrating what I have been saying) it’s totes cool for a more economically privileged person to not only discount their experience but call them ugly names based on their experiences! Because that upper class person obviously understands the lower class persons experiences better than they do themselves!

    “blame their socioeconomic cotravelers that happen to be brown”

    Strawmonkey, I was blaming the upper classes – read my posts. Geez. No one is blaming co-travelers. Calling me a racist again. Fuck you asshole.

  14. Isabel says:

    “I don’t believe you’ve ever properly addressed the BM’s repeated probing of your position on this…”

    You mean: I never actually read your posts Isabel, so tell me for the hundredth time what your position is on this.

    And BM made a nasty racist “whitey” joke to me so, like I said at the time, the hell with him. I bent over backwards to communicate with him and he was an asshole to me so fuck ‘im.

  15. Isabel says:

    “stepping aside”?

    Um yeah, as in scholarships that went to poorer whites in the past going to POC instead, rather than increasing the # of scholarships. This unfairness is at the root of a lot of anger at AA, but you can call it racism if it makes you feel superior. My understanding is that frustration with this situation was one of the driving forces for the recent changes you allude to, such as the movement to bring back SES as a qualification. But this correction is hardly widely accepted, let alone adopted, in the wider “progressive” community.

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