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Preparing Students of Color for Selective Colleges

Workshop is call for educators to work together on college access, inclusion

EVANSTON, Ill. --- At an unprecedented workshop at Northwestern University, higher education and K-12 leaders from across the nation discussed how they can work together to significantly increase the number of academically prepared high school students of color choosing to enroll in selective colleges -- and how they can keep them there.

While educators at both levels recognize the importance of this goal, the challenge has almost always been tackled at either the K-12 or university level. The workshop last month at Northwestern was a rare call for educators at both levels to work in tandem.

“Higher education can’t turn its back on K-12 and expect to enroll a diverse class that’s truly ready to be educated at our colleges and universities,” said Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, who, with Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, convened the two-day workshop at Northwestern.

Witherspoon outlined recent efforts the Evanston high school and Northwestern are jointly making to provide rigorous academics to students of all backgrounds. The institutions formalized their relationship with creation of an ETHS/University partnership coordinator position funded by Northwestern and based at the high school. The Evanston model and an extensive partnership developed by Syracuse University with its local schools served as exemplars for workshop discussion. 

The meeting of more than 30 K-12 administrators and higher education leaders included the presidents or chancellors of Northwestern, Syracuse University, Alcorn State University and University of Colorado Boulder and provosts, admissions directors, deans and professors from Amherst College, Duke University, Northwestern, Williams College, Winston-Salem State University and the University of Pennsylvania.  

It focused, among other topics, on America’s changing demographics, ways to boost academic achievement at the high school level, empirical evidence that multiple perspectives lead to more creative and innovative problem solving, and the creation of a “culture of diversity” on college campuses where students from underrepresented backgrounds, particularly students of color, feel both a sense of belonging and ownership of their education. 

Citing research that two out of three Chicago Public School students who gain admission to a selective school turn the opportunity down, Northwestern President Schapiro spoke of “a ‘disconnect’ between what universities sell in admissions and what they deliver.” 

Workshop participants agreed on the importance of creating K-12/higher education partnerships. “K-12 systems need to build the stock of college-ready students of color and disadvantaged students, while higher education needs to create more access (in terms of admission and outreach) and inclusion (in terms of acceptance and culture) for those students,” said David Figlio. Figlio, director of Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, moderated the workshop discussions.

“We can bring all the academically prepared students of color we want into higher education but if they are simply negotiating a white world or don’t see other people like them, they won’t stay,” said David Futransky, ETHS community liaison. 

The workshop emphasized the importance of research in informing and evaluating efforts to prepare students of color for selective colleges. Figlio, who also is the Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy, for example, will direct an evaluation of a major restructuring of instruction at ETHS that was designed to increase rigorous education for all students. 

The workshop included discussion of Fisher v. University of Texas, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court Oct. 10. The Fisher case challenges the constitutionality of Grutter v. Bollinger, a landmark Supreme Court decision that in 2003 upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.

“Fisher suggests both the urgency of developing students from all backgrounds who can invigorate our undergraduate liberal arts communities and the need to devise legally permissible ways to achieve that goal,” said Duke University sociologist and workshop participant William Tobin. 

Tobin joins Evanston Township’s Futransky and a small number of other workshop participants in developing a statement to reflect the core values and goals of the workshop and concrete steps the group as a whole will take to achieve them. Members of the group plan to reconvene after enlisting additional school districts and universities and colleges in their efforts.

“The best research indicates that, while difficult, it is possible to move the needle and promote a rigorous and inclusive educational environment for students of all backgrounds,” said Figlio. “I’m proud that Northwestern and ETHS are taking the lead in addressing this very important challenge facing our society.”

“Our nation is becoming increasingly diverse, and the success of our democracy will depend greatly upon K-12 schools and universities preparing future leaders of all races and backgrounds to be high performers in their careers and in their communities,” said Witherspoon. “Inclusive campuses will be a requirement for preparing students to succeed in a global economy.”