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5 ways elite universities can be more inclusive

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Minority admissions at elite colleges and universities grew in recent years. There are many potential reasons: a broader applicant pool, rising social awareness among admissions officers, and SAT-optional admissions standards. According to The New York Times, early data suggests that this year several top-tier colleges have admitted a higher proportion of Black, Hispanic, and lower-income students than ever before.

Data is one thing; lived experience is another. In this changing climate, how can academic institutions both encourage qualified students to apply and foster an inclusive culture once they arrive? On Thursday, May 13, MIT Sloan hosted the latest in a series of discussions on the inclusion innovation economy, spotlighting diversity in higher education.

a former Berkshire Bank executive vice president and current MIT Sloan lecturer who focuses on inclusion in the innovation economy, moderated a conversation with Inclusion Design Group CEO Dereca Blackmon, a former Stanford University diversity and inclusion executive director; and Stanley Litow, professor and innovator-in-residence at Duke University and a trustee at the State University of New York. associate dean for innovation and inclusion at MIT Sloan, also participated.

“We talk about ‘lost Einsteins’ and how there are Einsteins in every neighborhood. They just don’t know that they’re Einsteins. They don’t actually get the ability to be those prodigies,” Lazu said.

Here are five ways elite institutions can find — and value — them.

Recognize that providing access and promoting inclusion are separate efforts

Blackmon emphasized that access is only half the battle. Universities need to commit to valuing minority students as people and talents, not merely as quotas.

Officials need to “move beyond access and into real inclusion to start seeing FLI [first-generation and low-income] students as an asset to the university. We talk about FLI students. We talk about BIPOC students. We market them on our business websites and on our university websites, but they aren’t taught to see themselves as assets,” she said.

It’s essential to value these students through deeper institutional training that goes beyond outreach.

“Belonging is about the culture that you create that says to folks, ‘You deserve to be here. No one lowered the bar for you to be here. You’re here because you are an asset.’ That kind of belonging actually requires training for the people in a corporate culture, for the people in a university, so that they can retrain their thinking about what students are an asset to the environment,” Blackmon said.

Challenge old notions of merit

Lazu pointed out that merit was once intertwined with connectedness and status. It involved belonging to the right clubs. It was a currency of access, of networks and relationships. She said there should be many ways of evaluating worth. For instance, a student who worked while attending school and earned top grades is also exhibiting tenacity and ambition.

Murray pointed out that the traditional ways to assess achievement and promise — and therefore, admission standards — doesn’t always take into account multiple versions of success. She also noted that MIT doesn’t employ legacy admissions.

“We have to remind everybody that all those criteria that we sort of call ‘objective’ are of course neither objective nor are they fair,” Murray said. “I was reminded by our undergraduate admissions office that we shouldn’t just look at what students have accomplished … You have to think about the context in which their accomplishments could happen.”

Lazu put a pop-cultural spin on it: Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce appear on magazine covers with access to stylists and trainers. Their success is predicated on advantage.

“If I could spend $500 on my hair every time I wanted to go out of the house, I would be fly AF too. But I’m doing my own hair, I’m doing my own makeup. I do my workout in the house,” Lazu said, to laughter. “I love that idea of the context of the success.”

At colleges, effect massive social change

Litow noted how the IBM Company took a bold, early stance against institutional racism by proposing to open non-segregated plants in North Carolina and Kentucky a decade prior to the Civil Rights Act, refusing to abide by “separate but equal” mandates.

Colleges could wield the same influence, he said.

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“When we talk about academic institutions, they can not only change their own campus, but they can change the community. They can exert their influence on businesses, on not-for-profit institutions, and on civil society, because they have a lot of strength and power,” he said.

In fact, he said, institutions that don’t embrace diversity will be left behind, much as corporations have been.

“There’s a risk involved in any institution not getting out front on this issue. What we’re finding out right now is that talented young people don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t understand these issues. Your ability to attract talent is going to depend on your ability to understand that failure in this regard is a risk,” he cautioned.

Blackmon noted that the definition of excellence and success has already changed at the corporate level, if not at the university one.  

“We know that diverse teams outperform teams that aren’t diverse … There are quantifiable assets from a diverse team,” she said.

Despite the business case for inclusion, it involves a mindset shift, which is difficult for many people — but they fail to adapt at their own risk.

“[They] don’t want to hear it because it may mean sharing power and privilege that folks have had for so long,” she said. “Don’t be the one who doesn’t get it. You can’t not get basic management anymore, and diversity and inclusion and belonging and equity are basic management. You’ll fall behind if you stick with this idea that diverse is ‘less than.’”

Measure grit and determination alongside traditional hallmarks of achievement

Blackmon hopes that more colleges and companies broaden their definition of achievement instead of relying on shortcuts such as test scores or marquee college names on a resume. It’s easy to evaluate applicants based on class rank or test scores or number of Advanced Placement classes taken. It’s harder to quantify resilience, and it’s neither fair nor accurate to pigeonhole someone based on their alma mater.

Blackmon challenged colleges and companies to adopt a more nuanced vision of success and accomplishment. As those in power push for greater access to elite institutions, it’s important to redefine the very notion of what elite means. Ambitious students should feel empowered to choose the right educational fit over the right brand name.

What if we reinvent the idea of what is excellent? Because what we’re learning is the measures we’ve used beforehand are shortcuts,” Blackmon said

Cultivate and support international students

The pandemic has made it more complicated for international students to enroll in U.S. colleges; in 2020, the influx of new international students into U.S. institutions dropped 43% from the previous year, according to The Washington Post.

Now it’s even more important to welcome those students with system-wide changes, Litow said. He suggested devoting federal work-study dollars to student internships focusing on supporting international students.

“This is something that our higher education institutions can mobilize as one of the most important resources they have, which is their student population. They can be interns. They can be mentors. They can be friends. They can provide that kind of support in a way that an institution can’t,” he said.

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