Diversity Revisited

We talk a great deal about the need for campus diversity. Yet, most of what we do is talk. And, when it comes to dealing with the kids "lost" before they get to high school, we do not even talk.
12/29/2015 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2016

We need to rethink our approach to diversity on college campuses. Unfortunately, since I started calling for a new approach a decade ago, not much has changed.

Yes, colleges have brought numbers of foreign students to campus (a good thing), and they have partnered with organizations that bring a group of diverse children to the college. Yet, the fact remains we have not addressed the basic problem for students at risk: Roughly half of those children are lost well before colleges focus on them.

We talk a great deal about the need for campus diversity. Yet, most of what we do is talk. And, when it comes to dealing with the kids "lost" before they get to high school, we do not even talk.

I know; I was one of those college presidents who spoke for years about the necessity of institutions of higher learning becoming more diverse (I was a college president for 24 years). Like some of my like-minded colleagues, I initially focused on bringing in more (qualified) students of color, and I tried to do so by working with area high schools.

I failed, and so, too, did my fellow presidents. While we made minor inroads in increasing the number of at-risk children on our campuses, we did a miserable job of helping to increase the numbers of children who performed well in elementary school but dropped out before they got to high school.

During the first of my two presidencies, I decided to try something different. Thanks to the hard work of a faculty member who had taught in schools in the ghettos of Chicago and Oakland, we reached into third grade and began to work with at-risk children.

Developing an approach, called Help Yourself, that combined the early third-grade start, parental or surrogate involvement so that the work done in school was not undone at home, community participation to insure the program continued, a curriculum that complemented what was supposedly learned in school, college-student mentors, and, most importantly, a "home" for the program on a college campus, the program produced positive results. Over the years, 40% of the participating children stayed with the program for 10 years, and ninety-five percent of those who did went on to college.

When I stepped down from my second presidency, I decided to take Help Yourself national. With clear, demonstrable evidence of the success of the program, I thought it would be easy to find presidents who, like me, wanted to make their campuses more diverse and who recognized a different approach was necessary than simply working with high schools. I was wrong. Not only was it not easy, it has proven to be the most difficult thing I have ever undertaken.

Why? First, the average "life expectancy" of a college president is less than 10 years (recent data from the American Council on Education puts the average tenure at 7.8 years), so, even if a president partnered with Help Yourself in year one of a new presidency, that president would need to be willing to invest in a program that, in all likelihood, he or she would not be around to see children from Help Yourself academies graduate from high school and, ideally, enter college. Second, colleges are under severe financial pressure, so, unless a program is integral to the college's mission, it is unlikely that program will be funded at less well-endowed institutions.

Fortunately for the children involved (both at-risk kids and their college-student mentors), I have partnered with a dozen presidents from Massachusetts to Wyoming who have invested in Help Yourself. And a small investment it is.

With costs for each class of children in the two day/week program roughly $15,000 per year (snacks--$1,000-$2,000; teacher stipend--$5,000; and transportation--$7,000-$8,000), the amounts involved do not even constitute a rounding error for colleges with budgets in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars. Were a college to bring in a new class of third graders each year, the six-year cost would be approximately $100,000 once six classes are up and running (the program focuses only on grades three through eight because most colleges have high school initiatives into which the Help Yourself students can be channeled).

Seeing the excitement in children's eyes never grows old. How can it? Young lives are changed, and communities benefit from those changes because children become better educated and more productive.

With each participating president, I have made a bet, a sucker's bet. If the president were to ask a child where he or she goes to school the day after beginning Help Yourself, my bet is the child will name the college, not the elementary school because, instantaneously, a child's horizons are broadened, and college becomes part of that child's future. (By the way, I have never lost a bet.)

In the long run, is that not what colleges that seek diversity should be doing? After all, what is better: Bringing in a large group of foreign students or a posse of "home grown" students who will, in all likelihood, have educational options or, alternatively, making sure more children who lack options do not fall by the wayside?