10/12/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Equity and Homogeneity in Higher Education

In 2006, Lisa Delpit authored a powerful book titled Other People's Children. The majority of the book focuses on how school administrators often victimize students of color. She also notes that many people are comfortable with educating and supporting people like themselves. It is when people are confronted with 'other people's children' -- children that often have different cultural backgrounds and look different from them, that some people become uncomfortable about supporting their education. Delpit's book and subsequent ideas remind me of discussions around educational success in countries such as Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

Last week I participated in the Salzburg Global Seminars, which took place in Salzburg, Austria and has since 1947. The seminar's theme was "Optimizing Talent -- Closing Education and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide." One of the speakers, Cecile Hoareau of the University of Maastricht, presented a paper pertaining to equity across Europe and as expected, according to her research, those countries with the greatest level of equity in higher education were Finland, Sweden, and Norway. These same countries have been the subjects of quite a few essays written in the United States as of late. All of these essays hail the Northern European countries as role models in both K-12 and higher education. And they are. In all of these countries, education is public, free, and high levels of equity have been achieved. These countries are proud of their success and should be. Their success leads to one central question: How can this success be replicated?

While I think this is an important and admirable question and I also think that there are important lessons to learn, people tend to forget that Finland, Sweden and Norway are homogenous countries. When Cecile Hoareau was asked about this homogeneity, she claimed that the countries were becoming more diverse. However, the percentages of non-white immigrants to Finland, Sweden and Norway are tiny. For example, people from underdeveloped nations make up less than 1 percent of the Finish population. In Norway, 3 percent of the population is made up of immigrants from non-Western countries such as Morocco, Somalia, Iran, and Turkey. And in Sweden less than half percent of the population is Somali, which is the only critical mass of people from underdeveloped nations.

Reflecting on Delpit's ideas, people are more comfortable taking care of and educating people who are similar to them in terms of race and culture. One of the secrets of success in homogenous countries is that they are homogenous. People feel comfortable with the government providing resources to the general public because the general public looks like them. Unlike these Scandinavian countries, the United States is hugely diverse and we often think that people of our race and class work harder and know best. Many of us differentiate based on race and judge the quality of individuals by their race -- even if we do not want to admit that we do. We also often feel that if one group of people gains access and resources that we lose something. Our diversity makes us stronger, but it also makes our system deeply complicated in comparison to homogenous Scandinavian countries. These complications are exemplified in European countries such as England and France, which are experiencing more and more diversity and the challenges of inequity that surface in racially and ethnically diverse nations. According to Laura W. Perna, a participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar and Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, "Achievement of equity is influenced by the structures in which individuals of different groups are embedded, especially the extent to which individuals of different groups have the opportunity to be adequately academically prepared to enroll and succeed in college, the financial resources necessary to pay for college, and the information required to navigate their way into and through the higher education system."

In order to achieve success the likes of the Scandinavian countries, we need to give the opportunity that Perna discusses to all citizens and realize that our lives are deeply intertwined and that our success is linked to others. We also must realize that another person's gain is not our loss. There is room for multiple and wide success in our nation. Higher education must be seen as a public good rather than a mere individual or private gain in order for us to increase our attainment and be more competitive on an international stage. We need to care about 'Other People's Children.'