“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.