What does it take for a university to be excellent—but not exclusionary?
That’s one of the key questions raised by the book “Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities.” It takes a close look at the challenges and goals of two colleges in California that primarily serve America’s “new majority”—that is, students who may be the first in their families to seek higher education, who are people of color and who are often low-income—and that also have grand ambitions to be top research universities.
Leaders of these institutions—the University of California at Riverside and the University of California at Merced—argue that higher ed doesn’t have to be exclusive to be prestigious. Instead, they believe that education excellence should be accessible and inclusive.
That’s easier said than done, however. As “Broke” explores, state dollars for public universities have been shrinking just as more and more students who want a college degree are less and less able to pay high tuition bills. That makes it difficult for universities like UC Riverside and UC Merced to provide all the teaching, advising, mental health and cultural resources that benefit college students. And that means students who need the most support often find themselves on campuses with the fewest available resources.
We caught up with the authors of “Broke” for this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast, to find out more about the pressures squeezing these institutions. They are Laura T. Hamilton, professor and chair of sociology at the University of California at Merced and Kelly Nielsen, a senior research analyst in the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of California at San Diego.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page, or read highlights below, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: How would you define a ‘new university’?
Laura T. Hamilton: New universities are universities that serve underserved student populations—so students of color, students who are from low-income families. And they serve large portions of them.
They are research universities … they tend to be in the top 200 research universities in the country. They often did not start with the student population that they have. A lot of them started as predominantly white, and over time have shifted to serve new student populations. And this is partly a function of the changing student population in the U.S. … [and] also the increasing wealth gap, which means that more and more students who come to college have less family wealth to rely on.
And these schools have taken these students and really said, ‘This is gonna be the center, the heart of what we do here as a research university. We are gonna do top-notch research with this amazing student population that other schools have historically not done a good job at serving.’
There are a number of tensions that you describe in the book emerging at these institutions. Among them is a sort of prestige penalty that comes along with the student body.
Kelly Nielsen: One place to start is to point out that the University of California is really a best-case example. The UC system operates on a level of formal equality between the campuses. And so the prestige functions a bit differently than in a system where you may have a flagship university and then you have a sort of lower-tier universities below them. The UC has effectively nine equal campuses.
The question of prestige at UC nonetheless maps on to the racial distribution of students across the system. And so we can see just in the UC, where it really is the best case, there is still a kind of prestige problem that comes along. And so what these campuses really tried to do to address this prestige penalty was to say, ‘We are going to try to remake what makes a prestigious campus along the lines of inclusion and access and the success of a diverse student body.’ [That] is different than what had historically been the basis of prestige in higher education, which had been rooted in exclusion.
So UC Riverside was a great example, because UC Riverside went and they said, ‘We are going to directly challenge the way that rankings get produced and the way that these metrics of prestige get produced by showing that we are doing a far better job at fulfilling the mission of public higher education,’ by providing access to all of California’s students and families and successfully educating them at the level of a UC campus. … Not compromising the research but also remaking what it means to be prestigious.
Laura T. Hamilton: These schools are also implicitly presenting a really big challenge to the way that we assign merit. I think in studying Riverside and Merced, it really highlights the fact that the production of merit in the college admissions system is extremely attached and linked to race and class—because merit is something that requires resources to produce. So you can produce a record that looks meritorious the more money you have, and wealth is racialized in the United States, so the more money you have, the more class resources you have, the more racial privilege you have, the more likely you are going to make your child look … meritorious. And that gets mapped onto these institutions. Those racialized hierarchies get mapped onto institutions, and then money flows along racialized hierarchies.
And that makes the schools that serve disadvantaged students have less resources, and they struggle to really meet the needs of these students.
And pushing back against that model throws into relief a lot of the problems with that model and the ways in which race and class are baked into prestige, such that what makes a university prestigious in the current system is simply how many white and rich students they enroll. And that fact is often sort of hidden under layers.
Listen to the rest of the conversation on the EdSurge Podcast.