Fighting the politics of access to higher education

While growing up I heard versions of the adage, “show me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are”. I considered the proverb a warning to cultivate friendships with upstanding and exemplary individuals and that not doing so would reflect negatively on my character.

However, it was not until my transition from student to education practitioner and then from education practitioner to scholar, that I realised most young people in the United States do not choose their friends because their friends are chosen for them.

If you are a student in a public school classroom in the United States, your friends and classmates most likely share the same racial and ethnic background and socio-economic status as you.

In cities like my hometown Detroit and other urban centres like Chicago, Atlanta and Houston, black students attend schools that are extremely segregated. Unlike the codified school segregation before the Brown V Board of Education ruling of 1954 that ruled “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”, United States public schools now suffer from de facto segregation.


The 2016 Civil Rights Project report Brown at 62: School segregation by race, poverty and state reveals that, although public school enrolment has increased in size and become more racially and ethnically diverse, “segregated non-white schools with zero to 10% white enrolment have more than tripled in this most recent 25-year period”.

This means that, although white students are less likely to find themselves in solely white classrooms, black and Latino students in the US increasingly occupy 'double segregated' classrooms – classrooms that are overwhelmingly filled by both students of colour and economically impoverished students.

One of the reasons for this segregation is the “lack of mobility and declining real incomes experienced by many millions of US families in the last generation”, says the report. The implications of this double segregation are troubling, it says, because “African American and Latino students who are concentrated in schools rarely attain the successful outcomes typical of middle-class schools with largely white and Asian student populations”.

As a result, it is now more important than ever to address the separate and unequal classrooms that limit educational attainment, restrict social capital and narrow access to higher education.

Trump and DeVos

There are growing concerns that President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of the billionaire and school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as secretary of education will only reinforce the racial and socio-economic inequity of America’s public schools. In fact, Randi Weingarten, the president of the teachers’ union the American Federation of Teachers, called DeVos “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee” in more than 40 years.

DeVos’ inexperience as an educator, her lack of first-hand public school experience and her commitment to charter schools and school vouchers illustrates that, just like her boss, she is detached, disconnected and ill-prepared to represent and advocate on behalf of America’s most disenfranchised and under-resourced communities.

DeVos promotes school vouchers on the basis that they encourage ‘school choice’, allowing students from underperforming school districts to attend better schools outside of their zip code and private schools. However, ‘school choice’ is not an education equaliser, but an effort to fund private and parochial education, diverting tax dollars to religious and charter schools and reducing education to a for-profit pyramid scheme (DeVos’ husband is heir to Amway).

In addition, overwhelming evidence demonstrates that charter schools, which are publicly funded, but privately managed, “do no better at educating children than traditional public schools and serve only to exacerbate funding problems for cash-strapped public districts”, according to Kary Moss of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. DeVos has been an architect of charter school education in Michigan, ultimately using her influence and wealth to shift both discourse and resources away from public schools.

Furthermore, Trump’s impending conservative Supreme Court Justice nominations also have the potential to threaten college access, diversity and inclusion. Proponents of Affirmative Action breathed sighs of relief after the 2016 Fisher v University of Texas at Austin decision maintained that “the race-conscious admissions programme in use at the time of petitioner’s application is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause” and therefore upheld Affirmative Action.

The repercussions of a politically and ideologically imbalanced Supreme Court could mean four years of anti-Affirmative Action legislation and could return institutions of higher education to the segregated and exclusionary institutions of yesteryear.

Professor Jeffrey Milem reminded participants of the White House Summit on Postsecondary Diversity and Inclusion held last month of this history, noting that “most [Predominately White Institutions] have a history of limited access and exclusion” with a “longer history of segregation and exclusion than they do of inclusion”.

Inequality of access

Nevertheless, it is not the past, but the current state of college access that invites us to address education equity at all stages. During my tenure as an admissions officer and coordinator of multicultural recruitment at Georgetown University, I saw at first-hand how low-income and first generation college students were often ill-prepared and unaware of the opportunities and resources available to them.

In contrast, students in more affluent communities were equipped with the tools and resources to sharpen and refine their aspirations and applications. Given the segregation of America’s public schools, the students from the under-resourced schools were often students of colour; the affluent and well-prepared students overwhelming white.

This exposure to inequity and my personal experiences as a low-income, first generation college student led me to create the College Admissions Literacy Consulting Company, or CALCC.

CALCC is committed to equipping high school students and their parents with meaningful skills, information and resources to successfully navigate the college admissions process through one on one consultation. The CALCC website lists important information about college navigation websites, testing flexible institutions, college fly-in programmes and scholarships.

Furthermore, students are given a thorough evaluation of their current high school and access to sophisticated college guidance, a resource that students from under-resourced schools tend to lack and which hinders their success in the college admissions process.

My engagement with college admissions and access stems from my own encounters with unjust education conditions in Detroit Public Schools – overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks and limited access to rigorous curricula.

That personal experience has honed my commitment to resisting any policy, initiative or administration aimed at narrowing access to a diverse and enriching public school education. My dedication to ensuring that people of colour and low-income and first generation college students have equitable access to higher education is unwavering and I believe a serious assessment and investment in public school education is crucial to achieving this end.

Despite the prevailing circumstances, we must continue to rally behind progressive educational policy that will not pre-determine the friends and classmates our students have because of their socio-economic status and racial and ethnic identities.

Aya Waller-Bey is founder of the College Admissions Literacy Consulting Company and programme manager in the Office of Fellowships, Awards and Resources at Georgetown University, United States.