Opinion | Columns

Skin-deep diversity

“Diversity” must be the buzzword of the month. Some recent examples: A case pending before the Supreme Court on affirmative action, an announcement of new a faculty hiring initiative, and Spec op-eds galore (cue meta-moment of self-awareness). If I had a shot for every time I heard the words “burden,” “privilege,” “accumulation of advantages” tossed around this week, I’d have a great drinking game. Nothing gets people riled up (or generates site traffic) like a good old-fashioned online comment war on affirmative action.

Don’t get me wrong: I think diversity is a fantastic thing, and something that Columbia should foster. But is the diversity that we are promoting “true” diversity? We have expanded undergraduate minority representation to a level that would be shocking 30 years ago. We represent one of the most diverse colleges in the United States. However, the socioeconomic diversity of Columbia did not increase accordingly—in fact, the number of Columbians who belong to the highest levels of American wage-earners has increased even more dramatically.

Diversity, particularly in college admissions, has become a proxy for “race” narrowly defined: black, Asian, Hispanic, white. Race is a necessary but not all-encompassing component of diversity. As the average net worth of the families of admitted students has skyrocketed over the years, can we really claim to be creating true diversity? If our goal is to create an environment marked by varied backgrounds and experiences, then concentrating Columbia degrees in the hands of the most well-off seems like a poor way of achieving this goal. It’s difficult to believe that the almost 50 percent of Columbians who don’t qualify for financial aid can truly claim to be representative of a “cross-section” of the American experience. Is the experience of the elite really so different across racial lines? If diversity is truly valued, a greater emphasis should be placed on true differences of experience, reaching out further to students of more modest means.

It is wrong to believe that by simply mirroring national racial statistics, diversity can be achieved. As long as the student body continues to be overwhelmingly represented by such a narrow slice of the American population, campus diversity will remain skin-deep. The racial diversity that we have achieved—and continue to pursue—is a limited substitute for the more democratic vision that could be achieved by encouraging socioeconomic diversity, a term whose meaning transcends color and race. However, they are by no means unrelated.

Compounding the problem is an admissions system that celebrates the “holistic student.” Sociology professor Shamus Khan spoke about this at a recent lecture "Under the looking glass: Your Ivy League Education." On the surface, this sounds fantastic. More “interesting” students, students who have qualities and experiences beyond the classroom, are understandably more desirable to colleges. Instead of encouraging diversity, however, this system has institutionalized the built-in advantages of wealthy students. Students of “means” can (and attend schools that can) afford to purchase “experiences,” paying their way to becoming more interesting people. The college application about “the time I worked 30 hours a week at Wendy’s” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “the time I discovered poverty in Uganda on vacay and made a documentary film about it.” This inherently discriminatory practice serves to stymie campus diversity. Students who cannot afford these “enriching” experiences are unable to get in, and the diversity of their perspectives never make it past the admissions committee.

It is a fool’s errand to pretend that Columbia is anything other than a place of privilege. Top students pay top dollar to attend a top school. But by admitting a class that is 13 percent black (the same proportion as the general population), are we solving a problem? Or simply masking the fact that Columbia is increasingly the exclusive domain of the wealthy?

I can recall a 16-year-old me struggling to explain the Common Application to a high school counselor who couldn’t have found New York on a map. For us, the Ivy League was a far-off place filled with Vanderbilts and private planes. I was lucky—I had teachers who were able to give me the support I needed to navigate a needlessly confusing and infinitely terrifying application process. But for many of my fellow students at my minority, low-earning high school, the college process would never be demystified. This is partly a function of a poorly performing bureaucracy at a poorly performing school. But I wonder why Columbia and other elite colleges couldn’t be bothered to recruit at schools like mine, where students of color, particularly poorer students of color, are concentrated. It is the next evolution of thinking about diversity—beyond the “racial rainbow,” to a legitimate variety of perspectives.

Andrew Godinich is a Columbia College junior majoring in sociology and Portuguese studies. He is the Latin America and Caribbean affairs correspondent for the Columbia Political Review. Too Be Frank runs alternate Thursdays.

Revision: Arguments about the "holistic student" were mentioned by Shamus Khan at a public event earlier this week. An earlier version of this column did not mention this event. The column has been updated.

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Anonymous posted on

Andrew, this is a PHENOMENAL article, and strikes at the heart of the problems with the diversity initiatives at Columbia that all the hippies here get excited about. The administration is interested in (1) money, so they recruit from the international wealthy - who they of course do not give financial aid, and (2) graduate science/math research, so they recruit from Asia/East Europe, not domestic underprivileged groups. 

Conveniently, the administration has found that it can achieve another sexy-sounding objective - "diversity" - by recruiting from these international groups and reporting skin-based statistics on racial diversity, just as you say. Royalty from Southeast Asia or the son of a monopolist in Brazil don't represent disadvantaged minorities, but the administration still counts them in their diversity statistics that are supposed to reflect their commitment to serving the people in minority communities that are ACTUALLY underprivileged. This is aside from the more important reality that a spot for an international minority at Columbia is a spot that a domestic AMERICAN minority could occupy - shouldn't an American university favor the latter?

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Anonymous posted on

"
The college application about “the time I worked 30 hours a week at Wendy’s” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “the time I discovered poverty in Uganda on vacay and made a documentary film about it.” This inherently discriminatory practice serves to stymie campus diversity. Students who cannot afford these “enriching” experiences are unable to get in, and the diversity of their perspectives never make it past the admissions committee." 

Couldn't have said it any better. THIS is the heart of the diversity problem our campus has. It's not (explicitly) a lack of diversity of skin color (although it's often related), but a diversity of socioeconomic background. What would a student who worked a minimum wage job to support his family throughout high school say about Smith, Marx, or Darwin in a CC course? How would his perspective enhance the experience for ALL of us at this school?

Unfortunately we largely fail to find out, since our administration is motivated by money and uses diversity as a marketing platform, cleverly promoting itself as a "diverse" campus while accepting mostly a contingent of racially-diverse students from privileged backgrounds. 

Socioeconomic diversity is true diversity. It is, true enough, often linked to racial diversity in our country, but Columbia's indifference towards pursuing the right type of diverse applicant, one who has truly struggled against all odds to be in a position where he might attend Columbia, is tragic. Well put, Andrew, and I truly hope our greedy, misguided administration reads your relevant and insightful column.

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Anonymous posted on

While I think this piece hits on some really key points, I also think the issue is more complicated than you make it out to appear. While a large number of students do come from privilege and have no problem paying for college, a majority of students are also on financial aid. Socioeconomic diversity is not visible, and that's in part because socioeconomic status is not something we feel comfortable talking about. People will tell you about the amazing time they spent in Africa helping orphans because they could afford to go. People won't tell you about the summer they spent lifeguarding because, in general, especially in an institution as high stakes as Columbia, that's not deemed "worthy." Personally, I think an essay about working 30 hours a week at Wendy's, if it expressed true growth as a human being and was well-written, would be a phenomenal essay. Much better than "What I learned while I was hiking in the mountains of Peru." Socioeconomic diversity is not visible on campus because we as a culture still tie low status to shame. We don't look around and ask who in our seminar is first generation in their family to go to college, but if you did, you'd get several hands. I agree, students who don't come from privilege don't have the same opportunities. That's a given. And a lot of times, those are the kids who are getting the shittiest education, and have to work the hardest to get here. The fact is that a lot of our schools aren't preparing kids for COLLEGE, much less Columbia. And so part of that falls back on us as a culture and our school system. We need to do better. And Columbia participates in the National Opportunity Program, which gives students from those types of backgrounds and educations the tools they need to succeed at Columbia. But as a matter of pride, who's going to say they need help to get through school? We are a very proud institution, and it takes courage to say to your friends, "I can't go to Cancun for Spring Break because I can't afford it." And that is not because we are not a diverse campus socioeconomically, but because - and I think this article exemplifies this - because we don't think of ourselves as one. We make assumptions about our peers, and we're not aware who's in the room. So a student who worked two minimum wage jobs during high school would CERTAINLY have interesting things to say about Smith and Marx, but first we need to be ready to listen, and we need to be ready for them to say it. 

Which is all to say, really, challenge your assumptions about your classmates and be willing to engage - or respect their decisions not to engage - in these dialogues. Just because we're not vocal doesn't mean we're not here.

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Anonymous posted on

Andrew, this is a good opinion piece. And I cannot disagree with the premise of socioeconomic differences coloring people's experiences. However, I think you have not had enough experience at Columbia or have had a very parochial one to believe that we don't have enough representation from people of "modest means". Can we have more? Of course. But then that is true of pretty much every thing we are looking to improve on. I completely understand your experience, and mine was even worse, at least you had a high school counselor, I had to figure this out all on my own. And Columbia didn't come to my school or any nearby schools, but they are limited in how far they can go. I didn't have any of the experiences that can be bought, not even knowing that people had those until I got here, and they still found a way to welcome me in and understand how great a fit this would be. I have met enough students here who are on some form of financial aid, work multiple jobs, come from families for whom this isn't within their means... Again, can we expand financial aid even more? Yes, of course. But that doesn't mean we can accuse Columbia of valuing diversity that is only "skin deep". Additionally, not completely ignoring how socioeconomic differences impact people, there is still an argument to be made for cultural differences that permeate despite a higher socioeconomic class. Again, I think your own experience has been quite narrow in its scope if that is something you haven't felt in your time here. Again, good opinion piece, but that's all it is: an opinion. And there are far better and broader ones out there that I would want to hear on this.

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Anonymous posted on

I think this article makes a wonderful point, but one that is marred by its willingness to contrapose economic and racial diversity. Affirmative action is in place to reconcile entrenched pro-white bias that is pervasive across all socioeconomic levels. The key insight of this article is that an additional project ought to be in place: reconciliation of the unfair advantages and disadvantages placed upon youths due to the economic means of their guardians. I think this is a great proposal, but the terms in which it was made are troubling. The point is not that certain forms of diversity are "skin deep"; let's not reduce the struggles and pervasive experiences of unjust discrimination faced by racial minorities by suggesting that socioeconomically well-off racial minorities bring a less-than meaningful form of diversity to Columbia. The point is that the diversity Columbia fosters is importantly incomplete; that those of lower socioeconomic status often face extraordinary and unique struggles, the likes of which are not well-represented here; and that the economic advantages and disadvantages placed upon youths due to the economic status of their guardians are undeserved and ought to be reduced or neutralized.

When we understand the article's suggestion in these terms, we not only eliminate an unnecessary and problematic component of the framework in which it is rendered, but also recognize both its radicalism and its implicit lack of clarity. The suggestion is that advantages and disadvantages placed upon children due to their parents' economic statuses should be either reduced or fully neutralized for reasons of instrumental or intrinsic value - I'm not sure which. The suggestion is prima facie quite anti-capitalist; I'd have preferred to see this article recognize its implicit anti-capitalism and address it head on. Further, I'd have preferred to see it clarify exactly what it is - low socioeconomic status itself or the struggles it instantiates - that makes economically underprivileged students valuable to Columbia, and exactly what form that value takes: is it the fact that these students are intrinsically deserving? is it the fact that capitalism necessarily breeds unfair advantages and disadvantages for children that ought to be eliminated sans phrase? is it the fact that the Columbia student body as a whole will benefit from sharing experiences with students who come from all varieties of backgrounds? who have experienced all varieties of struggles? The fact that the lack of clarity in the author's suggestion is problematic is evinced perhaps most clearly by the above claim of "Completely Agree" that "socioeconomic diversity is true diversity." So reductive and problematic a claim is astounding. I don't think that's what the author meant to say. But I also don't think the author was clear enough about what he meant to say in order to decisively state that the claim of "Completely Agree" is simply her own opinion, rather than a valid paraphrase of the author's own views.

In effect, while I take this article to offer an interesting, provocative, and important suggestion - one with which I'd likely agree - some adjustment to the framework within which the suggestion is made, and some clarification as to the specific motives and justifications of the suggestion seem to me to be in order.

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Anonymous posted on

1. Use fewer semicolons. 

2. It's hard to even begin to claim that the struggles faced (in this generation) by a wealthy minority vs. any individual growing up in poverty are on the same level. In this country, which is indeed capitalist as you so astutely notice, the barriers to success imposed upon the poor are immensely stronger than those upon the racially discriminated. Here's the author's point: the pool of those who come from backgrounds of poverty and who are racial minorities are often (unfortunately) the same. This, providing opportunities for these students, should be the aim of affirmative action and of diversity initiatives at Columbia. Having a wealthy student who happens to be a racial minority does not help people by extending them a chance at success they otherwise wouldn't have, and it doesn't foster the right kind of diversity on campus - the extent to which someone whose young life has been colored by a srtuggle against poverty would. 

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Anonymous posted on

You write as though your comment should clarify the author's point; it doesn't. (Semi-colon special for you!) I don't know whether you're suggesting that socioeconomic status should be included as an additional factor qualifying one to receive the benefits of affirmative action, or if your suggestion is that low socioeconomic status should be the sole factor, and that making it so will still imply admitting a large number of racial minorities. The difference is quite important. My point - at least the one which I take you to have responded to - is that this article makes suggestions about a deep and meaningful issue without clearly articulating what it is suggesting. Affirmative action is presently taken to be justified as a means to rectify the disproportionately low numbers of particular minorities in various institutions. Its aim is not to advantage the disadvantaged or to ensure the ubiquitous possibility of realizing the American Dream (i.e., the economic advancement of those born into low-income situations).

Now, perhaps its aim should be one of these alternatives. That is a meaningful question worth discussing. But we won't be able to have a meaningful discussion about it if we fail to articulate specifically what alternative we are suggesting. We can all agree that the poor and the disadvantaged should be better off. The question is whether affirmative action and diversity initiatives should shift their present aims to address that issue rather than another, and whether such a shift would be justified. That, it seems to me, is the substantive issue here, but one that we've failed to have a meaningful conversation about because we've focused on the "failure" of diversity initiatives to foster "the right kind of diversity." These are the sorts of claims a politician would make in response to a question that it's not strategic to answer clearly; they aren't the remarks of someone making a substantive and philosophically grounded suggestion regarding a complex set of issues.

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Anonymous posted on

Having attended Columbia College and then professional school at another ivy, I can tell you that Columbia is much more diverse than some other ivies.  Columbia is not just more racially diverse, but also more socio-economically diverse.  You are being to hard on Columbia.  You would not believe how privileged the students were at this other ivy.

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Anonymous posted on

I am in your same situation, and I definitely agree.

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rick131 posted on

Completely agree. Say all you want about Columbia, but it by far more diverse in every way and much more accepting than any of the other ivies by far.

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Anonymous posted on

Even if it is true that CU is better than the other ivies (and it may very well be true), that misses the point of the article. Wouldn't CU want to set its own standards and ideals and try to live up to those? If you're awaiting trial, you can't say that you're not a criminal because you only robbed a bank because your colleagues killed somebody.

But even if everything IS fine now (and it may be, I don't know), then Andrew's point that CU is "increasingly the domain of the wealthy" comes into play. Are you happy with the trend?

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You voted '-1'.
Anonymous posted on

I agree that private university's like Columbia need to expand their definition of diversity, if they are in fact truly concerned about and believe in the strength of having a diverse student population. But there is something you failed to mention in your article: the School of General Studies. As one of the four undergraduate colleges, this school for "non-traditional" students does exactly what you are proposing. Many of us do not come from privileged backgrounds and have led very rich and diverse lives. In short, we are the definition of diversity. This is where Columbia University stands head and shoulders above all other schools. No other university has a school as well developed as Columbia's. General Studies accepted me when no other top flight university would. It took a risk on a student who dropped out (essentially failed out) of college the first go around but has learned from my mistakes and now finally understands the importance, value, and joy in a rigorous education. Other colleges seemed too concerned about the risk or the difference in age or in experiences when compared to "traditional" students. Whatever the case may be, I currently have a 4.0 GPA and serve on the editorial board of two journals on campus, so I'd like to think that the risk has payed and will continue to pay off. It's true that the College could stand improvement in socioeconomic diversity. This is a problem that I, having grown up in relative poverty and been homeless at one point in my life, have noticed. But don't discount the incredible diversity that we GSers bring to the campus, and don't forget that the University has supported us for numerous decades.

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Anonymous posted on

GS Student makes a very good point.  When I was a CC student, I found that the GS students added diversity, maturity and a different perspective to conversations and classes.

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