Colleges and universities have a significant role to play in shaping the future of race and class relations in America. As exhibited in this year’s presidential election, race and class continue to divide us. Black Lives Matter movements, campus protests and police shootings are just a few examples of the proliferation of intolerance. It seems like we understand each other less each day. Higher education has a moral imperative to become the training ground for issues that students will face throughout their lives. Given the increasing diversity of higher education, there has never been a greater opportunity to address race and class.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 20.5 million students are expected to attend college this year. These students will be entering a postsecondary landscape unlike any other; 14.5% of students in college are Black and 16.5% Hispanic. While low-income students still enroll at lower rates, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that 46% of America’s traditional college-age people who are low-income are now enrolled in college. Colleges are beginning to reflect America’s diversity and this presents an opportunity for cultivating understanding.
Universities are microcosms of the world we inhabit. However, campus interactions can be more intense than those outside academia. For many, stepping through the doors of higher education could be the first time they are confronted with engaging difference. Low-income students will now be eating, working, living and playing with wealthy students. Students who grew up in predominantly white communities will now live in residence halls with students from all over the globe. While it’s an incredible opportunity for exchange, it’s also easy for misunderstandings to lead to conflict.
The first thing higher education must do is help students understand that life in college is challenging. What’s often lost in conversations about safe spaces and trigger points is the acknowledgement that college is where students go to leave their comfort zones. Being uncomfortable actually helps them grow. In fact, former Williams College Prof. Robert Gaudino, a political scientist and experiential educationalist, dedicated most of his career to helping students engage “uncomfortable learning.” He believed that putting students in uncomfortable situations and forced to confront their own beliefs, values and “habits of mind” was the key to their growth and success.
Confronting race and class in college is hard, but the results can be transformative. Recently, I hired a young African-American student as a research assistant. She told me about a powerful experience she had in college when called the “N” word by a white peer. Her outrage was evident, but given the small size of our institution, she ironically ended up in a class about race with this student. Through intentional class discussions and heated debates, the two have now reconciled and are friends. The young man acknowledged his own ignorance and has been transformed by the experience. While their journey was unpleasant, both students were forced to deal with the implications. The structure that college provided them created a space for them to turn anger, and bias into learning and mutual understanding.
Administration plays a significant role in setting the stage for dialogue. In fact, much of their work impacts issues of race and class each day. They can use the admissions and financial aid process to socially engineer a campus that represents the diversity of the nation. They can create orientation programs that cultivate cross-cultural interactions and engage students in conversations that challenge beliefs. The way colleges construct everything from their residential life policies to extracurricular activities, can have an impact on how students engage difference.
I recall my own experience as a first-generation low-income student who was placed in a dorm room with a wealthy, white male (the first I had ever met). We spent a year engaged in interactions about our differences. We both made so many assumptions about each other, (often wrongly so), but we learned so much because of the way the college provided a platform and support for us to do so.
Faculty also play a pivotal role in campus conversations. Addressing issues of race and class are often delegated to sociologists, anthropologists and historians, but campuswide change happens when all faculty see race and class as an opportunity for pedagogical engagement. Race and class are omnipresent and its realities don’t go away when a student walks through a classroom door. The willingness of faculty to incorporate these issues into curriculum and navigate conversations when they arise could also change how students engage difference.
Last semester, I taught a course with a mix of students of color and majority students, as well as low-income and wealthy students. One day, they were visibly upset about the fact that some students had written “Trump 2016” in chalk around campus. This created a lot of emotion for students of color and confusion for majority students. I immediately went “off script,” and moderated a difficult conversation. I passed over the day’s planned course content, but the issue was important. There was no solution, but the greatest gift of the conversation was when students on both sides of the argument admitted they had never thought of the issue from the other’s perspective.
As the demographics of the U.S. change, that of those who walk through the doors of higher education also shifts, and we have a moral imperative to socially construct the platform for students to learn how to engage difference. The 20.5 million students in higher education will impact our future. In his book The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, reminds us that “as society goes, so goes the university.” He believed the university has a responsibility to meet the urgent demands of society. The deliberate creation of platforms that support students through cultivation of spaces and interactions about difference can shape our nation’s future. This is no small task, but society has spoken. It’s now higher education’s turn to respond.
Angel B. Perez is vice president of enrollment and student success at Trinity College.