Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Finding Fierce Urgency to Move Against Economic Inequality

Sean Decatur
January 24, 2017

Last week, the New York Times ran several stories on economic inequality at American colleges and universities, based on a recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project. Kenyon was highlighted as one of the 38 institutions with more students from the top 1 percent of the socioeconomic strata than the bottom 60 percent. The report also analyzed outcomes of graduates by institution, and found that, using post-graduate salary of the Class of 2013 as a measure, Kenyon and its peers are not as successful as many public institutions (such as CUNY) at propelling students up the socioeconomic ladder after graduation.

While I can repeat previously stated critiques of studies that rely on post-graduate salaries as an exclusive measure of academic success, this most recent study is worthy of close examination. Economic inequality is one of the grand challenges facing all of us, locally, nationally and globally. The growth in inequality, the scholarly attention this topic has received (including here on campus at a 2014 conference by the Center for the Study of American Democracy), and the recent presidential election all have brought new attention to this issue. Published within days of our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations on campus, the Times report highlights the topic on which Dr. King focused most of his attention in the days before his assassination. The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a moment for both somber reflection and determined renewal of commitment to our communities and principles of justice, not only on issues of a global or national level, but on matters local and personal. The article offers a moment for us to look closely at what Kenyon is doing, and what we should do, in order to address economic inequality.

Making Kenyon more accessible to families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and preparing students for career success after graduation also were two major themes expressed by alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff during the Kenyon 2020 conversations, and they represent the central tenets of the Kenyon 2020 strategic plan. As Kenyon moves toward a comprehensive campaign, the New York Times article only underscores the importance of these priorities.

We need to strategically use Kenyon’s resources to attract, retain, and graduate an academically excellent and diverse student body. Kenyon’s biggest challenge to increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus is the size of its endowment, which limits funds available for financial aid. This year, financial aid expenditures run about $33 million, most of which comes from tuition revenue (as a reference point, our total income from endowment each year is only about $10 million). Without building our endowment, significant increases in the financial aid budget must come at the expense of raising tuition. A top priority in the coming years will be to increase our endowed funds for financial aid; this will both increase resources available for students with financial need and help to reduce Kenyon’s tuition dependence, which in the long term slows the growth of costs for everyone.

Efforts to boost funds for financial aid are beginning to have an impact. This year, we are expanding the KEEP Scholars program to include an additional 12 students interested in STEM; and we have strengthened our Admissions Office’s connections with the Kenyon Academic Partnership (KAP) and Camp 4 programs to build pipelines for talented students to come to Kenyon. We must continue to focus efforts on both increasing funds for financial aid and finding innovative approaches to recruiting and supporting students on campus.

We must intentionally build community on campus and within our wider Kenyon family to enhance the learning environment for all students. We can and we will make progress on increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus and preparing students for their lives after graduation, which are the two major points highlighted in the Times story. This includes not only creating opportunities for socioeconomic diversity, but also working to make our campus more thoroughly inclusive for less economically privileged students who may be struggling with the hidden costs of attending college.

Socioeconomic diversity improves the educational environment for everyone; a campus that is insular, homogeneous and isolated from the surrounding community will fail to prepare students for life after graduation. We need to work to ensure that students on campus work together, challenge each other, and develop the ability to understand other perspectives.

We are focused on a comprehensive educational experience that prepares all students for post-graduate success. Kenyon produces graduates who are actively engaged citizens, shaping the civic and social fabric of their communities; who have developed a deep appreciation for the arts, humanities and sciences; and who lead satisfying and fulfilling careers. Yet while we must resist the forces that aim to reduce college education only to financial terms, we also must recognize that finding a career and establishing economic independence is very important to all of our students, especially those who do not come from families with economic privilege. This is not a false choice between liberal and vocational education. An excellent liberal arts education should accomplish all of these goals.

We are working to expand access to internships and undergraduate research for students to apply concepts from their coursework to real-world problems. In April, Kenyon will hold its second annual Celebration of High-Impact Practices, where students will share what they learned from internships, study-abroad programs, research and other engaging experiences. This campuswide event showcases the vast opportunities Kenyon students have to bolster their educational experiences with assistance from the Career Development Office, the Center for Global Engagement, and other departments and offices around campus.

Work on these three priorities is far from finished. But, this is a time to recommit ourselves to the challenges ahead of us. Institutional change is slow, and at colleges, the pace can feel downright glacial. Change in financial position is often incremental; changes in programming, whether curricular or co-curricular, must come with some assurances on long-range sustainability; and, of course, change in the student population can take four years, as each class completes the cycle from Orientation to Commencement. But while change can be slow, we must hold onto what Dr. King called the “fierce urgency of now.” We must maintain our focus on these three essential priorities and commit to redouble our efforts wherever possible.