Students against the current: unconscious bias in higher education

The current college admissions bribery scandal poses many relevant questions. On the one side, this case might make us forget that, as three Brooklyn College professors condemned in a recent article, the true crime in higher education is how we have abandoned public universities like CUNY. Moreover, as retiring LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow noted in an interview, we should be troubled by the disproportionately small amount of money that community colleges receive, considering that they educate more than half of all undergraduates. If we let public education fall in disrepair, we might end up believing that elite schools are actually ‘better’, even though, as Mellow warns us, “Harvard, Yale and Stanford may not be the ‘best’ colleges.”

On the other hand, this gives us a good reason to think about the difficulties low-income students encounter when navigating college admissions. In his op-ed article, Queens College student Enoch Jemmott lists some of these tangible problems: most public schools in the United States don’t have a single staff member dedicated to helping students apply to college; and those counselors who end up taking on that job spend only about 20 percent of their time on college admissions. Not to mention that, in the U.S., 1.7 million students attend schools that have police officers roaming the halls but no counselors.

In addition to properly funding public higher education, we need to raise awareness of the unconscious bias against it. According to Shankar Vedantam, unconscious bias influences our lives in similar manner as ocean undercurrents carry us in the ocean. When the undercurrent aids us in the water, we are unconscious of it, and instead of crediting it for carrying us, we credit ourselves and our talents. Thus, when we achieve success because of unconscious privileges, it doesn’t feel like cheating. And, what is most interesting, Vedantam reminds us, not only the people who flow with the current are unconscious about its existence but also those who fight the it all their lives. Thus, those students who fall behind might blame their lack of talent instead of a system that fails them. This might be an intangible problem, but its consequences are devastating. The Futures Initiative works hard to change that.

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