Dr. Matthew Lynch
The cost of going to college can be a deal-breaker. Even with Pell grants, scholarships, and some student loans, the overwhelming ticket price of higher education can be a major deterrent. This is especially true for minorities, first-generation college students, and those coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds. There is both a legitimate concern over what that college degree will cost as well as a cultural barrier that often tells these students a college education is just not for them (both within their circles and outside them).
But what if colleges were to take away cost as a factor ― completely? Throughout the country there are schools that are combating low diversity numbers with a novel idea: full-ride scholarships for those who qualify.
Now full-ride scholarships are certainly nothing new. They’ve been given out to promising students and those in financial need, and athletes for decades. What’s different about this new slew of full-ride initiatives is that they acknowledge a lack of diversity and are targeting minorities, women and underserved students.
The University of Michigan recently rolled out a full-ride scholarship program that targets students as young as 7th grade. The Wolverine Pathways initiative seeks to find students of academic promise from racial and socioeconomic disadvantage and give them a chance to earn a full ride to the university by the time they graduate from high school. Students will be paired with tutors and mentors in three academic sessions per year. If they complete the sessions successfully and are then accepted to the university, they will be given a scholarship for four years.
It’s certainly needed at Michigan, where only 12.8 percent of the 2015 freshman class are minorities. The school saw a dip from the height of its minority representation (13.8 in 2015) after affirmative action was struck down for college admissions. Since then, the university claims it has looked for ways to boost its diversity ― and the Wolverine Pathways program could finally do just that.
Arizona State University also announced a full-ride program for new MBA students in the fall of 2016 that is designed to improve diversity. Based on the student’s residency, the scholarship could be valued as high as $94,000.
Finances are certainly an obstacle when it comes to creating diverse college campuses but it is not the only issue. College freshmen from homes with no college graduates are at a higher risk of dropping out that first year. Students that have never learned basic life skills, including how to budget and pay bills, often get overwhelmed at college and drop out to immediately start earning money instead.
Then there is the whole idea of young people being handed something they don’t truly understand the value of ― and squandering it. It’s usually a decade or more later when college dropouts of all races and backgrounds look back and realize that they probably should’ve stayed in school. That’s around the time their college-educated peers are finally paying off those student loans, advancing in their careers, and finally cashing in on the quality of life that a college education provides.
It’s very difficult to explain to an 18- or 19-year-old student the total value of a college education, both in the immediate and over the long term. Not having to pay for that value could translate into students who do not respect that education the way they should. This is not a point specific to minorities, but to young people in general.
The next steps
So how can colleges and universities bring in diverse students, retain them, and graduate them debt-free?
It starts with the teaching and mentorship structure, like the one Michigan has in place, but needs to continue to college campuses. Students whom we know are statistically more likely to drop out need hands-on guidance counselors and mentors and professors who work hard to keep them engaged and learning. There needs to be retention programs in place that actively check in on progress and don’t simply offer an open-door policy. All of this is vital if colleges are serious about having a diverse student population that succeeds on its grounds.
For programs like the one at Arizona State, it also means more targeted recruitment. If you say you are lowering financial barriers in order to bring in a more diverse student group, then you must find that student group and offer them spots. That takes a lot of dedication but is well worth it.
The bottom line is this: Simply giving students free access to a college degree is not enough for those students to succeed. Colleges and universities offering these types of programs need to recognize how the financial constraints of college are simply one issue on the road to attaining a degree. Academic support, mentorship, cultural inclusion and so many other factors must also play a role in these incentives for them to truly be successful at boosting campus and workplace diversity.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is dean of the School of Education, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies, and an associate professor of Education at Virginia Union University.