While the advantages to higher education can be plentiful, the path to get there is steep with obstacles. On March 10, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, alongside Red Canary Magazine, partnered together to host the online event, “Won’t Lose This Dream: Student Success For All.” The event was derived from an article published in Red Canary Magazine by journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan in conversation with Andrew Gumbel, author of Won’t Lose This Dream: How An Upstart Urban University Rewrote The Rules Of A Broken System. This text examines how Georgia State University structurally shifted their mission and administrative goals to address student needs on a transformative level.
Higher education is a complex lens to peer through with the intent of reform. Institutions of higher learning come packaged with their own nuances, historical implications, and unique set of problems. For Georgia State University, faculty at the school recognized that the shortcomings that were occurring for a large portion of their non-traditional students (first-generation, low-income, POC) were detrimental for not only the students, but for the school as well. The growing and widely-accepted competitive environment at institutions of higher learning has directly contributed to a culture that prides itself on exclusion in terms of race and class. Rather than continue fostering an educational environment through a narrow binary that only values the top achieving students, Georgia State University took a different approach to re-examine their purpose as a university. With a radical philosophical shift, detailed research, and the implementation of data and innovative technology to help all students, Georgia State University’s graduation rates for Black and Latino students began to rise exponentially over the course of 12 years. To further unpack the complicated nature of higher education and its capacity for reform, I spoke with journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan before the event.
One of the current barriers to sparking meaningful and intentional conversations of equity and inclusion within higher education is the inability for some to even recognize that inequality exists. Even in places like Southern California, that seemingly exist in a liberal bubble that outwardly displays support for racial equality, this is often easier said than done. For faculty, students, and advocates for structural equality and inclusion at Whittier College, Kaplan encourages us to keep acting on our convictions in the face of denial or pushback. She emphasizes that, “you can show people all the data you want on inequality, but, politically, they’ve made up their minds about what they’re going to do or how to react — and that’s just not voters but people in high places.” Despite geographical differences in the U.S., Kaplan continues by explaining that racial attitudes are hardened across political party lines, which ultimately impact the nature of institutions of higher learning. Even for people of color, the structural work needed to implement structural change on an equitable level is largely underestimated. Shifting university priorities to meet student’s needs is one way to actively begin changing this. Myths about low-income and Black students are often perpetuated through universities and colleges without taking a moment to ask them what it is they need to succeed, rather than just assuming they will fail. Kaplan says, “these are worthy people and brilliant students, the metrics we’ve often used to measure them are not good indicators of how they can succeed.”
Author of Won’t Lose This Dream: How An Upstart University Rewrote The Rules Of A Broken System, Gumbel highlights that this shift in addressing student needs begins on an immediate philosophical level, even for small, private colleges like Whittier College. During my conversation with Gumbel, he mentioned that one of the fascinating aspects about what Georgia State University has done is that they’ve produced results and concepts that are applicable to other schools. Although it might be a jarring realization, various universities and colleges simply do not have student’s best intentions in mind. Compounding factors like financial and psychological barriers that first-generation students encounter when they first enter college are very real and extremely isolating obstacles to endure alone. Once this is recognized and confronted at face value, then institutions of higher learning can reallocate their resources and time to figuring out the needs of their unique and complete student body. Gumbel continues to shine light on this aspect that is so often overlooked by recounting his own experience of witnessing Georgia State University’s success, “If you can recalibrate your thinking to meet the needs of the students you have, rather than adopting a model that was designed for a different sort of student body many decades ago, then you start to be on the same path that Georgia State has pioneered.”
During the event on Wednesday, a diverse mix of faculty, students, and advisors were present as Kaplan and Gumbel further discussed how schools like Whittier College can learn and hopefully implement the successful tactics that Georgia State University has demonstrated. As pointed out by Joe Donnelly, Editor of Red Canary Magazine and Visiting Assistant English Professor at Whittier College, the parallels between the plight of students at Georgia State University and Whittier College are striking in terms of shared circumstances that often pose obstacles within their educational journey. Gumbel himself also briefly chronicled his own experiences teaching high school students in Los Angeles Unified School District that encapsulates the area on the outskirts of Whittier. As the discussion began to get at the heart of Gumbel’s intentions with writing his book, he explained the heartbreaking reality of brilliant students that get left behind, overlooked, and altogether given up on. Financial struggles and lingering prejudice from segregation laws stemming from merely decades ago can create a disastrous domino effect that deter some of the smartest students from continuing their education.
Gumbel and Kaplan also introduced the concept of the chat box, a technology implemented by Georgia State University that essentially helps bridge the divide between advisors and students by offering a 24/7 online service that tackles the logistics of being enrolled in school. Gumbel encourages more schools to venture out and try utilizing innovative technology and data that can be used to support student needs. He assures students and faculty that federal privacy laws are ultimately in place to protect students’ privacy and that using this new wave of big data to students advantage has been widely beneficial at other schools. While many colleges and universities already obtain research and data on students, this research often misses the mark of accurately assessing student needs. The university culture can very well be shifted to transform the nature of how we use data for students in ways that alleviate frustrating issues like communication, lack of resources, and awareness of college policies that may be new to first-generation students.
As the event dwindled down and the panelists Kaplan and Gumbel opened the forum up to students, faculty, and advisors, one attendee expressed an acknowledgment that, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Whittier College advisors have been actively trying to work on making their communication accessible to students through the online format. Overall, there was a collective energy that was willing to examine and learn how Whittier College can begin leaning into their students’ needs and meeting them where they are, as students are, at the very least, owed that much.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Red Canary Magazine