College Access as Social Justice

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If you haven’t already guessed from my previous posts, I’m a huge proponent for the U.S. public school system. Due to my beliefs, many of my nonprofit activities are aligned with helping public school students in Pittsburgh. However, being a part of a college and community collaborative has its benefits and challenges. We are committed to community outreach but we have not established an objective or goal for educational social justice. For example, we host a college fair every year and invite the Pittsburgh Public high schools. It is a major challenge for high school counselors to register their students for the event, although we may call 3-5 times. Some of my colleagues recommend that we no longer invite schools based on their poor behavior for not registering students on time.

However, I am opposed to this idea for the simple reason that fairness is not social justice. How can we punish underserved students, who extremely need this college exposure, based on their counselor’s behavior? When talking to some of my high school counselor friends, they indicate that they are over-extended in their jobs and have trouble prioritizing their college preparation duties/tasks. So, how can we blame counselors who work hard to help their students access college resources? Another questions is what are we, as a collaborative, doing to reach out to the counselors in order to help their students?

In Pittsburgh and many other cities, there is an inconsistent message of the necessary information, habits, cultural cues, and/or attitude to transition from high school to college. Since there are so many colleges and community college prep programs in the country, there seems to be a decentralized message of college access. For example, colleges/universities will visit high schools, sponsor visits to college campuses, and/or host pre-college events/ programs to inspire students to go to college. Yet, oftentimes they will not interact with a student more than once during their high school career. Likewise, many community organizations visit college campuses, offer internships and scholarships, and invite college representatives to speak at special events in order to expose students to college. Yet, most of these activities are done without a solid college/university partnership and/or expertise. It is almost a hit and miss approach to college access. Our students deserve better.

The national state of college access is in the same predicament. From looking at the push for 21st Century skills, higher education is where recruitment, campus-wide social and cultural events, community outreach, and professional development for staff and faculty can occur to address some of the deeper social issues and personal development of the students. Through college access initiatives, the campus community can come together in order to better understand how to educate the growing numbers of traditional and nontraditional, majority and minority, native and non-native students on college campuses. There are common themes of school reform, democratic education, education as inquiry and exploration, critical thinking, integration, national policy, etc. that has over the years affected our ideas of education and the role of the educator. Therefore, it is our duty of care as educators to provide strategic alliances across intersections of differences. Similarity is in shared actions such as struggles for equality. We have to talk in safe spaces using caring words. This can be done through a school/college’s strategic plan to make colleges/universities, schools, students, parents, and community aware of initiatives and programs for college access as social justice.

Cameron McCarthy (1993) would agree with educators struggling for social justice. McCarthy (1993) states, “Utilize the points of view and experiences of oppressed minorities and working-class women and men as the primary bases for a core curriculum, would constitute a fundamental step in the direction of preparing students for democratic participation in a complex and differential world (pg. 297).” We must continue to struggle to counter the stagnation and reversals by complacent allies or opponents. There is validity in the student’s culture and perspective so it is important to listen and learn in an intimate teacher-student relationship. Then students can learn important skills including college access.

John Rury and other education scholars view education as one of the solutions for solving some of the major societal issues in the U.S (Bowen et al., 2006; Suarez-Orozco, 2007; Tierney and Jun, 2001; Tierney and Hagedorn, 2002; Tierney et al., 2005; Tyack, 2007; Wagner, 2010). They believe that education can remedy social problems because education is complex and interdisciplinary to include social theories and research from academic disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, etc. Also, there have been major developments, setbacks, etc. within the history of education which explain the current status of education in America today (i.e. industrialization, civil rights, etc.). Michael Crow (2012), President of Arizona State University states, “Education and democracy mean the same thing. They are rooted with each other, and our overall success for our country is depending on our success for the institutions that we manage.” Bowen et al. (2006) blatantly states, ”The institutional diversity is essential to achieving and sustaining the scale of the overall educational enterprise (pg. 41).” Therefore, higher education needs to educate more students, especially minorities, for participatory democracy.

William Bowen in his book, Equity and Excellence in the American Higher Education, looks at the tension between excellence and equity as the basis for the argument of educational social justice. Bowen believes that much more needs to be done if the goal of enhanced opportunity is to be served adequately by American higher education. He argues, “American colleges have never seen themselves as serving merely practical or narrowly vocational objectives (pg. 23)” Their purposes are the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, as well as the education of students (Bowen et al., 2006). Ideas are vital components of a country’s resource base. Bowen et al., 2006 further states that, ”Excellence in higher education can be thought of as high achievement in meeting core objectives… To educate large numbers of people to a high standard and simultaneously to advance and disseminate knowledge (pg. 42).” In other words, higher education has to constantly struggle with the issues of quantity and quality.

In the admission process, equity and excellence are debated and compromised when colleges want to attract the most promising students who are highly talented and diverse but limit access to a broad public. Many scholars, lawyers, and judges have discussed the conceptual questions but what about the operational issues in college access and public policy (Bowen et al., 2006). They are often poorly executed programs based on political climate/agenda and resources are scarce so trade-offs are likely options between equity and excellence.

Therefore, there is no succinct system of involvement among stakeholders. Plus there are other communication challenges to link all of these efforts and help transition high school students to college. Therefore, how can we streamline public school college-going culture? Where is the collaboration when so many stakeholders are invested in minority and low-income students gaining access to higher education?

Pedro Noguera states, “We came to the realization that if the educators would not embrace equity, we would have to find ways to force the issue, even if that meant generating conflict. We came to this realization because we understood that ultimately, issues pertaining to equity in education are a form of educational rights and social justice, and not a matter of professional prerogative (pg. 290).” Transformative change is necessary “at the very sites of power’s ideological and material production of us [U.S. minorities] as culturally inferior and socially disempowered subjects (Perez, 1993, pg. 269).” We have to show students that we are trying to be allies and construct a safe place so that students can voice their hopes, fears, struggles, and desires. Also, students need to be able, “to articulate their own cultural values in a critical context (McGee, 1993, pg. 286).” It is our responsibility to promote social justice through giving them an opportunity to learn in a critical/historical context but also have access to greater college and career opportunities such as our college fair.

P.S. Each of us needs to come to terms with our own views of education. Are we proponents of community outreach or social justice?

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