Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities || Q&A: Victor Ray with authors Laura Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen
Victor: When Laura and Kelly asked me to moderate this book launch I didn’t hesitate. I had the opportunity to read a pre-publication draft of this important book and look forward to being part of a continuing conversation on how race shapes resource distribution in higher education. Using case studies to examine two schools in the University of California System—Merced and Riverside—they argue that the neoliberal project has been tied to racial concerns from the start. The withdrawal of state funding for higher education arises at the historical moment when schools were required by law to open up to nonwhite students. So, in contrast to the massive Cold War infusion of cash that helped to build the University of California system (and public universities across the country) when they were educating the growing white middle class, these universities are now forced to seek funding however they can get it. Broke shows how these new funding structures impact students in ways that are likely to have long-term consequences for students and the country. I am looking forward to a lively conversation about the book.
Victor: How did the two of you get involved in this research? And how did the fact that you are both white matter for the research?
Laura: Thank you, Victor, for agreeing to moderate. As you know, we benefited greatly from your insights in writing Broke. For me, the initial seeds of Broke were planted when I accepted a tenure-track position at UC-Merced. Students demanded scholarship that recognized the rich racial and ethnic tapestry of the US—which was patently obvious in California. I became increasingly curious about my students’ limited access to university resources and the ways this was linked to student body racial composition. Both of us had been working on research projects focused on student experiences prior to our joint project. Like most postsecondary scholars, we drew conclusions about the educational infrastructure based solely on student reports. This was, in fact, one of the limitations of my co-authored book Paying for the Party. With Broke, we wanted to more thoroughly and directly study organizations.
Kelly: I came to this project after 3.5 years studying the experiences of poor women in the Riverside Community College District. As I looked carefully at the larger context of the women’s lives—the local labor market, neighborhood demographics, transportation systems, childcare arrangements, and interactions with police—race emerged as a key factor. With Broke, I was able to bring my understanding of the region and local community—key pieces of the UC-Riverside story. As we detail later, the two schools, UC-Merced and UC-Riverside, serve very similar student populations—both are majority-Latinx and majority-low-income—but they have very different histories. UCR was built in the mid-20th century, when public support for higher education was at a zenith, and UCM was built in 2005 when the bottom had fallen out.
Laura: As we discuss in the Methodological Appendix of the book, aptly titled “On Being White and Studying Race,” the single greatest methodological challenge for us in producing Broke has been thinking carefully and intentionally about our whiteness. We went into this project convinced that white scholars should write about race in the academy. The work of changing racist structures should not be shouldered solely by colleagues of color. White scholars typically profit from the ability to move through our careers with the privilege of never thinking about the racial dynamics of the environments in which we work. We did not wish to continue supporting this inequity. At the same time, we are also aware that well-intentioned white people can do a great deal of harm while they are attempting to support communities of color. We recognize that our whiteness gives us a platform to make bold claims about racial stratification in the academy that will not be diminished as “me-search” or “too political.” This platform has not historically been granted to Asian, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous scholars, as well as those from other marginalized racial and ethnic groups. From the outset, we understood that we could misstep by attempting to speak for, instead of, and about these groups. Thus, we made efforts, at every stage of the project, to reduce the harm that we might cause. We felt that the place we could do the most work and the least harm was in understanding how the organizational structure of individual University of California campuses, the larger UC system (which includes nine undergraduate serving schools), and higher education in the US is racially stratified. The book is thus intentionally focused on the organizational cogs of what we refer to as new universities. We wanted to understand how everything worked in the face of resource shortages, and how Latinx and Black students on campus were impacted.
Kelly: Interviews were conducted with a total of 93 university employees (at all levels) across both schools. With the support of graduate student researchers, we also conducted 84 interviews with Latinx and Black students across the schools, including random and targeted samples. We also engaged in ethnographic work on both campuses and used historical and regional analyses. In developing Broke and our arguments, we have benefited immeasurably from scholars engaged in race theory and research on racial inequalities in education. We are particularly humbled by race scholarship attending to intersections between white supremacy and neoliberalism, as intertwined systems of oppression. Throughout Broke, we have done our best to cite and credit the race scholarship upon which we build.
Victor: In Broke, you discuss “new universities.” What are new universities and how did they come into existence?
Kelly: New universities like UC-Merced and UC-Riverside pair high research ambitions with predominantly disadvantaged student populations. Understanding how they came about requires a quick dive into history. For most of the twentieth century, families of color, as part of the tax base, were paying for wealthy white students to attend universities where their own offspring were not welcome. Everything changed as marginalized populations gained more access to historically white organizations. Affluent whites would need to help pay for the postsecondary education of Black and Latinx youth, as well as the white working class. This did not happen.Instead, over the next thirty years, starting in the early 1970s, the dismantling of what Chris Loss refers to as “the state-university partnership” occurred. The federal and state investments that had built greater access for women, low-income students, and students of color were dismantled. We often like to show a graph for 4-year public university funding and funding for corrections in the state of California. It goes like this (gestures an x). Higher ed funding sharply declines as corrections funding increases. This decline in funding occurs alongside the death of affirmative action in higher education. Indeed, the states that would adopt bans on affirmative action were those with a decline in the percentage of white students at flagship universities. That is to say, when a mechanism for the racial dominance of whites was threatened, states responded aggressively.Between 1996 and 2012, enrollment among Latinx students ages eighteen to twenty-four increased by 240 percent. Increases among Black students also outpaced whites. We argue that without redistributive mechanisms, new forms of segregation accompanied this groundswell.The new university is a product of demands for access to research universities in a racially segregated system. Most racially marginalized students of color attend increasingly low-resource community colleges or predatory for-profit universities. Tiny numbers—primarily from more affluent families—land at elite privates. When racially marginalized students from low-income families attend research universities, they do so mostly at new universities with other students like themselves. New universities are not all “new” in the temporal sense. To the contrary, with the exception of UC-Merced, these are typically existing public universities, some quite old, that have begun shifting their organizational practices and priorities, often in response to postsecondary defunding. One major shift, necessary for survival, is enrolling greater numbers of racially and economically marginalized youth. Many of these schools are publicly recognized as Minority-Serving-Institutions. But I want to emphasize that, with the exception of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and tribal colleges, MSIs are typically not founded to serve racially marginalized populations. Like UCR, they often go through a conversion process, from predominantly white to predominately racially marginalized. There are new universities all over the country. Arizona State University is, in some ways, the prototype. Other examples include but are not limited to: University of Central Florida, Georgia State University, University of Illinois–Chicago, University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Massachusetts–Boston, Rutgers University–Newark, University at Albany–SUNY, University of Houston, and George Mason. New universities will increase in numbers as the racial demography of the US continues to change, the wealth gap between the richest and poorest Americans grows, and declining fertility rates shrink the size of the college-going population. We see the development of new universities as a continuation of this process by which racially advantaged groups maintain their advantages. New universities spotlight the continued racial segregation in higher education. And they also emphasize the unequal funding and resources that go to organizations serving majority racially marginalized students.
Victor: Can you tell us more about resource disparities for new universities relative to universities serving racially advantaged students?
Laura: Broke uses the University of California system as a case study for race and resource allocation. The UC is, however, a best or better case scenario—it has been widely recognized as a mobility machine. The nine undergraduate serving campuses are all research universities and the state has a historical commitment to serving racially and economically marginalized students. But even in the UC, organizational resources are connected to the race and class composition of the student body. Our focal schools in the book, UC-Merced and UC-Riverside, proportional to their size, do the lion’s share of work with marginalized student populations for the system. Both schools are majority-Latinx and majority-low-income. Yet, UCs vary wildly in their access to private revenue, which matters given that only 10% of overall UC revenue comes from the state. Just 10 percent. This tiny amount is distributed in relatively (but recently not fully) equal per-head allotments to students across the system. Such a level of equity in the dispersal of state funds is actually somewhat atypical. But Merced and Riverside’s budgets are almost entirely dependent on the state funds that they receive. They have tiny, almost non-existent non-resident student populations and thus cannot rely on the additional tuition boost these students bring. Other UC campuses are about a quarter non-resident, and these students bring in as much funding as 3 in-state students. UCR and UCM have no million-dollar donor pipeline. Indeed, in recent years Merced’s foundation has received less than 1 percent of the private support that Berkeley’s foundation takes in during a given year. Auxiliary services that often make money at other schools drain their coffers. Merced and Riverside are doing the work that public research universities were envisioned to do—that is, they bring opportunities to families and regions in need of support. They are working with students whose potential is untapped—students who are tied to often forgotten inland areas of the state of California, whose families harvest our nation’s produce and fill low-paid essential worker positions during the global pandemic. Yet they do it with a fraction of the funds available to other UCs—much less the elite private universities in the state. This pattern is not just restricted to the UC system or California. University wealth is nationally concentrated at schools that serve very few numbers of marginalized students. In some work that my colleague Charlie Eaton and I are doing, it appears that the gaps in organizational resources by student race are, in some cases, larger than the gaps by student class. In Broke we argue that these organizational resource disparities are the result of a racialized neoliberal cycle of resource distribution. Neoliberalism is a moral and economic ideology, a set of policies and practices, and a broader social imaginary that supports the deflation of public spending on social welfare and the intensification of private market competition. It rests on the colorblind belief that individuals and organizations should “earn” their financial rewards in a competitive marketplace. Yet, colorblind beliefs do not take into account the continuing centrality of race to accessing opportunities and resources. Non-redistributive structures ensure unequal access to wealth for racially marginalized individuals and families—as well as the organizations that serve them. Racialized resource allocation is centered on “merit,” a socially constructed and colorblind sorting mechanism that emerged in elite US higher education as a defense against demands for greater access by marginalized groups. White families have, on average, greater income and wealth to devote to producing academic and extracurricular merit. Merit leads to the racial segregation of students into different schools. Merit is also mapped onto organizations, so that there are supposedly more “selective” and better “quality” schools – distinctions that are directly tied to student racial composition. Schools that serve racially and economically disadvantaged students, like UC-Merced and UC-Riverside, are thus less competitive for private funds from tuition, donations, philanthropic investment, and corporations. With limited access to private funds, these organizations cannot provide the same level of support as organizations serving affluent white students. This directly connects to Victor’s work on racialized organizations theory. Cultural understandings of race underlying hierarchies (in this case, “merit”) shape resource distribution, leading resources to consolidate among dominant groups.
Victor: What do resource disparities at new universities mean for racially marginalized student experiences?
Laura: We know most public schools have faced decades of austerity and have been hit hard by COVID-19. But if you are at a prestigious private or public university we are not talking about the same thing. We are not even on the same scale. Universities that work with marginalized student populations are being literally starved for resources. Employees at these universities often have clear-eyed goals about supporting students that run into hard fiscal realities. In Broke, we document the on-the-ground consequences of institutional wealth gaps for vibrant, sharp, and driven Latinx and Black youth from low-income families. It’s sort of hard to imagine unless you are at a similar institution. Let me share a quote from a passionate university representative at a vigorous townhall at Riverside in 2016:
A world class university is not one in which new students arrive without housing accommodations, face panic with course registrations and financial aid or attempt to get appointments with overburdened advisors and staff. It is not one in which students come to class stressed out because they’ve spent an hour or more trying to find parking. And it is not one in which students avoid the restrooms, if at all possible, because they are, in my students’ words, disgusting. Only then to go into classrooms with broken furniture, missing ceiling tiles, dust encrusted air vents, wires coming out of walls, floors covered with dirty footprints and leaves, and filthy desks and chairs. They have to contend with unstable Wi-Fi access because the system is over-burdened, and several student centers are overwhelmed. The message students get is that once they…have contributed to UC-Riverside being named a Hispanic Serving Institution and recognized as one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, is that it is then unimportant that they, at a minimum, receive instruction in adequately appointed labs, classrooms and lecture halls. This is not world class, it is third class.
The situation at Merced was very similar and more pronounced in some ways. Although the physical infrastructure is new and not yet crumbling, the campus has struggled to provide basic services to students. The chapter “Tolerable Suboptimization” is in fact named after a policy put into effect at Merced in 2016. During the workforce planning process, leadership produced a webcast about tolerable suboptimization and asked staff to tune in. They argued that absent essential resources, we have to accept a level of suboptimal operation. Offering suboptimal supports for students was thus actually university policy. Of course, for racially and economically marginalized student populations, who depend on the university for educational resources, suboptimal support may not be tolerable at all. The tolerable suboptimal chapter looks at advising, mental health services, and cultural programming at UC-Merced, all of which are far from sufficient—despite the excellent university employees who do incredible work under incredibly difficult conditions. For example, student access to academic advisors is severely constrained. In the School of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities at Merced, the caseload for an academic advisor was 740 students per advisor during our study. This is 2 1/2 times the national average for public 4-year universities, and 7 times the average of private BA-granting institutions. Mental health services were severely overloaded with high caseloads—leading to wait times of a month or more. The problem was compounded by being in a health care desert, such that the only place for students to get skilled and long-term support was on campus. And cultural programming effectively consisted of one social justice coordinator. At the time, there were no established or staffed cultural centers on the campus, despite a multiply marginalized student population. These kinds of disparities are deeply troubling. And are only likely to get worse if public funding continues to dry up, and campuses continue to rely on competition for private resources — competitions that new universities are poorly positioned to win.
Victor: In Broke, one chapter is devoted to P3s in higher education? What are P3s, and how do the development of P3s relate to racial disparities in higher education?
Laura: In the 20th century public universities relied on governmental support to build their physical infrastructure. As public universities try to stay viable in states that are not sufficiently contributing to higher education, funding infrastructure (such as new buildings, but also basic maintenance and retrofitting) has become exceptionally difficult. P3s, or public private partnerships, are increasingly gaining ground in higher education as a way to provide necessary infrastructure. P3s occur when local, state, or federal agencies contract private-sector entities in order to provide services or infrastructure for public use. Globally, P3s are used to provide education, food, water, housing, sanitation, and medical care to marginalized populations. They have become central to the agendas of large international aid agencies. In the US, they also reflect a long and growing reliance on private organizations for public social provision. P3s are a form of “backdoor borrowing,” circumventing laws that require voter approval to accrue more debt. Because the private sector can provide the financial backing necessary to complete a project, P3s may even seem to make money appear out of thin air. Ultimately, however, state entities must provide payments for the services provided by private entities.The problem is that the bottom-line goal of most for-profit partners is to make money. Ideally, profit and social welfare could both be achieved in a P3, but when profit is at stake, social welfare may not be a concern of private partners. There is money to be made off public needs. Public-private partnerships are a useful tool for college campuses seeking to update or build new student housing. Some campuses are also now pursuing other revenue-generating projects through P3s—including campus hotels, dining services, retail spaces, parking garages, and athletic fields. So this is an increasingly common way to meet space needs. These partnerships have been hailed by commentators as a new “silver bullet” for campus development. UC-Merced, which opened in 2005, is a test case for large-scale P3 development. The Merced deal deviates substantially from the typical student housing P3 formula. It is not only about building “extras” to enhance university status or to meet housing needs, but in fact a P3 was used to build an entire half of the campus. It is no understatement to say that postsecondary leaders and lawmakers across the country are watching intently. The school is a test case for the viability and limits of P3s in higher education. We argue that the fact that this experiment is being carried out on a campus with a racially and economically marginalized student body is not incidental. UC-Merced is taking a great risk, one that would be inconceivable to better-resourced universities, because it has few other viable options. And it shouldn’t have happened this way. UCM should have been built half a century earlier. In fact, the 1960 California Master Plan for higher education included infrastructure in the San Joaquin Valley of California, where UCM is located. The San Joaquin Valley is home to a large population of disadvantaged Latinx and Asian communities. These communities of color have little political voice, relative to coastal white communities. The San Joaquin Valley suffers from limited access to clean air and water, employment opportunities, and health care. In short, communities in the San Joaquin Valley are subject to intense systemic racism. The withholding of research investment in the area is simply another manifestation of the same problem. What does it mean for UCM that it built half of its campus using a P3? The campus agreed to a 39-year contract, in which the school is paying a private company every year. Remember in decades past, states covered new buildings, or issued tax exempt bonds that schools could eventually pay back. But UCM didn’t have this luxury. The school took on serious debt, debt it shouldn’t have had to take on to serve its students. The school based expectations of meeting payments on faulty assumptions—for example, dramatic increases in non-resident students. Now, this debt haunts the campus. It is students and staff who most feel the resulting crunch.
Victor: These schools can be exploitative of students, but they also celebrate the diversity of the student body. Can you tell us why diversity is a problematic organizational framework for attending to race? How does it impact the efforts of racially marginalized students to make their campuses safe and comfortable?
Kelly: Diversity, or a shallow commitment to difference in all of its forms, is now the dominant cultural logic of race in contemporary postsecondary organizations. As James Thomas’ work clearly illustrates, most US universities have developed a “diversity regime,” or “a set of meanings and practices that institutionalizes a benign commitment to diversity.” We argue that diversity regimes are highly compatible with austerity: When resources are perceived to be limited, diversity regimes offer a relatively affordable “solution” to race—one that is also consistent with anti–affirmative action legal frameworks. Indeed, diversity regimes typically fail to redistribute power and resources in ways that support racially marginalized groups. Our two focal campuses provided a very useful comparison. At UCM, diversity was the only cultural logic addressing race and a diversity regime the only infrastructure attending to race. At UC-Riverside, a competing logic—that of equity—was also at play. The school was a national model for cultural centers that took a collective approach to race, oriented around history, positionality, and community. Group-based centers were the backbone of efforts to support marginalized students and secure additional infrastructure. So what is wrong with diversity? Diversity is a colorblind ideology. It obscures race as a system of oppression by focusing on individual identities. Diversity regimes tend to support a one-size-fits-all infrastructure: a single center, training, and/or administrator that is expected to address all diversity-related issues on campus, without singling out any particular group for “special” treatment. When race is described as but one of many, equally important identities, administrators may see devoting targeted attention to racially marginalized students as in opposition to campus diversity and inclusion goals. This is why, for instance, founders of AFRO Hall at UC-Merced had to contend with claims that they were being segregationist in attempting to claim space and resources. Diversity regimes of course ignore the fact that universities–even new universities–are experienced as white spaces. These spaces are normatively white (and people in power are mostly white). Without intervention, they remain so. Diversity regimes are driving a national tendency toward “multicultural” initiatives that replace or supplant group-based centers. They limit the structural supports available for racially marginalized students. Thus, while at both schools racially marginalized students were engaged in what we refer to as “racialized equity labor,” at Merced, students were doing the work of non-existent group-based cultural center staff—for example to run Latinx and Black grad, build a living learning center, and staff a multi-cultural center, among other things. This labor was effectively outsourced to the students. For example, in our data, we describe the experiences of students who created the intercultural hub—the single multicultural center that eventually opened at UCM. The inclusivity of the space (and lack of staff) meant that student leaders were subject to (and had to police) racist incidents in this so-called safe space. They had no staff, and only a tiny room with which to work. Indeed, cultural infrastructure typical of a diversity regime is often so broadly “inclusive” as to be ineffectual, and potentially even unsafe, for marginalized populations. At Riverside, we observed something different. Although there was a diversity regime developing, the school has perhaps the nation’s most-developed cultural center infrastructure. It is home to a total of eight group-based cultural centers—five of which serve specific racial/ethnic groups. Chicano Student Programs and African Student Programs, on which we focus, are rooted in the Chicano and civil rights movements. These centers promote racial equity through the empowerment and support of groups systematically disadvantaged on the basis of race. Both are grounded in communities of color inside and outside of the university. Equity-based efforts contribute to the uplift of marginalized communities and challenge oppressive structures rather than maintaining the status quo. An equity approach does not require or allow dispassionate distance from the students served by a center. Instead, staff worked alongside racially marginalized students to achieve victories important for the collective well-being of Black and Latinx students on UCR’s campus. The web of institutionally supported infrastructure, with deep community ties, eased some of the burden of racialized equity labor that students, staff, and faculty of color often undertake on university campuses. African Student Programs and Chicano Student Programs, for instance, advised student groups and living units, carried out Raza and Black graduations, and organized important cultural events—tasks that fell primarily fell to the uncompensated labor of students, staff, and faculty at UC-Merced.
Victor: At the end of the book, you argue that new universities are put in the position of having to trade on racial marginalization in order to gain resources. Can you provide an example of this dynamic?
Kelly: One great example is university partnerships with corporations seeking to improve their workforce diversity. We want to preface this, though, by saying that new universities are not unique in using their students as resources. There are incredible pressures on all research universities to utilize any assets in competition against more resource-rich organizations. Students not only bring in money as consumers, they are also valuable in securing donations, corporate sponsorships, nonprofit foundation support, and other sources of funding. The process is not always purely extractive: Students can benefit from these transactions, for instance, via jobs or better-supported university programming. But the selling of students is also racialized. Predominately white universities, implicitly and explicitly leverage the racial privilege of the student body in attracting private funds. The new university’s strategy must be different. Leadership seeks to utilize one of the organization’s greatest resources—a substantial number of academically successful racially marginalized students. Administrators hope to capitalize on the ability to help other organizations produce racial diversity—in what we refer to as a “diversity transaction.” But diversity transactions occur in the context of racial hierarchies that devalue racially marginalized students and the schools that serve them, while elevating other students and universities. Thus, as Amy Binder and Lauren Rivera’s work suggests, when high-status organizations, such as corporate firms, seek to reproduce their high status, they turn to elite predominantly white universities to recruit what are presumed to be the “best” candidates—a majority of whom are white. In contrast, new universities are not sought out to create corporate prestige, even though these schools also offer excellent job candidates. Instead, corporations may use new universities for a very narrow set of purposes: in particular, to secure historically underrepresented candidates that help address diversity-related issues and market products to non-white consumer groups. We saw this with UC-Riverside’s partnership with PepsiCo. UC-Riverside is a “core” campus for Pepsi recruitment efforts. It shares this status with several other schools in the region, most of which are part of the California State system. The majority are Pepsi-exclusive campuses, which sell only Pepsi products. They tend to be located near Pepsi plants. A large Pepsi facility, for example, is located right in Riverside, about a ten-minute drive from the campus. All of the schools are demographically similar to UC-Riverside in that they enroll racially marginalized students from low-income households. At UCR, the relationship with Pepsi is the result of careful cultivation by the university career center. As one Riverside official explained, the school was focused on “leveraging UC-Riverside’s diverse profile and looking for companies that really have a commitment to diversifying their workforce.” We interviewed former UCR students who were now in the position to support this partnership on the Pepsi side. Pepsi was looking to UCR to fill particular types of jobs—field leadership positions in local communities of color that required interfacing with the stores and clientele buying Pepsi products. Pepsi employees told us that racially marginalized workers from less prestigious research universities like UCR were desirable in these positions, as they connected with workers of color and did not balk at less than glamorous working conditions. The implication was that advantaged white employees would reject these jobs and might hurt the company’s ability to establish ties with stores in marginalized communities. This form of racial matching, however, cut off substantial opportunities for workers who were not white. Pepsi turns to elite, predominately white, universities for higher-status positions within Pepsi, presumably working with white clientele. The chapter goes into depth on Riverside’s efforts to establish links to corporate ERGs (or employee resource groups) focused on particular racial identities, not just in Pepsi, but in other corporations that might place their students. Corporations benefit because they win kudos for their seeming commitments to diversity and develop products that bring profit. For instance, Adelante, Pepsi’s Latinx ERG, was involved in the development of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Tapatío-flavored Doritos and Ruffles for Frito-Lay—a division of PepsiCo. The university perceives a benefit, as it gets the brand out there, often receives job training support from corporations for students, and can secure job placements for graduates. The moral and ethical quandaries here are complex. Universities may act with the explicit purpose of supporting the student body. But these schools are simultaneously, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, commodifying social inequalities. That is, they are using the experiences and aspirations of racially marginalized students to produce profit.
Victor: What does Broke suggest about what we should do to tackle postsecondary racial neoliberalism?
Laura: Creating social change necessitates repeatedly breaking the racial neoliberal cycle—disrupting the cultural understandings and material consequences that reinforce and reproduce each other, as suggested in Victor’s work on racialized organizations. We focus our efforts where we have expertise, offering interlinked recommendations that will work against postsecondary racial neoliberalism. First, we encourage academics, staff, and administrators to challenge diversity. Diversity is a colorblind logic that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to attend to the needs of racially marginalized students. It focuses on individual differences, rather than structures of oppression that impact students and their communities differently, and views collective efforts to center race as divisive and unfair. Equity-oriented logics, in contrast, attend to history, positionality, and power. They emphasize the collective empowerment of communities systematically disadvantaged on the basis of race. One way to combat diversity logics that stall or prevent meaningful change is to devote university resources to strengthening equity-oriented infrastructure and communities, like the group-based cultural centers that exist at UCR. Our second suggestion is to abolish the SAT. And we don’t mean making schools SAT optional. We actually mean stop administering the SAT. As historian and anti-racist thinker Ibram X. Kendi argues, “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies.” The SAT is the epitome of this phenomenon. If we reject the notion that “merit” measures students’ capacities to achieve, and instead see it as measuring their privileges, then it is easier to see access to well-resourced universities as a social good that should be more evenly distributed and that can be fully utilized by a wide variety of deserving students. Some have even suggested that elite universities could move to a lottery admissions system to radically democratize opportunity. Third, we also need to combat the racialized organizational hierarchies that penalize new universities and other schools serving racially marginalized students. We discuss the importance of a large coalition of new universities acting as a political bloc. These schools, and their allies, should refuse to submit information to the U.S. News & World Report indefinitely, or at least until the rankings more directly reflect a public mission. This group should also issue a challenge to the AAU (or Association of American Universities). The schools considered to be, quote-on-quote “America’s leading research universities” cannot be just predominately white and East Asian. We also encourage collaborative public systems. Public university systems have an important role to play in redistribution. Systems need to develop mechanisms that pool and share resources, such as non-resident tuition, so that universities serving the most-disadvantaged populations are not the least resourced. Public systems could more easily be redistributive if private schools did not hoard economic resources. We could eliminate three major tax breaks for endowments and direct federal funds toward supporting public institutions serving and graduating marginalized populations. I have to say this seems more possible now than it seemed when we wrote Broke. Our country made a choice in the last decades of the twentieth century to withdraw funding for public higher education, just as waves of racially marginalized youth gained greater access. This was likely not coincidental. But it is reversible. Reinvestment requires convincing the public that higher education is a public good, from which all of society benefits, and not solely a private commodity that promotes individual gain. We once saw higher ed as a public good in the Cold War era. But the Cold War University was a War Machine—driven by military spending and fears of falling behind Soviet scientific development. We propose, instead, that a version of Green New Deal legislation could serve this purpose; universities are a major source of the science behind renewable energy, and research on policies to deal with upcoming natural disasters, public health crises, environmental pollution, and population migration. These problems require collective action. Research universities can be both models for and sources of collective efforts to deal with these issues.
Kelly Nielsen is a senior research analyst at UC San Diego Extension’s Center for Research and Evaluation. He is co-author of Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities.
Laura Hamilton is professor and chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of California-Merced. She is co-author of Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities and Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality and author of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success.
Victor Ray is an assistant professor in the Departments Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. His work is published in leading academic and popular outlets such as the American Sociological Review, Sociological Theory, Harvard Business Review, and The Washington Post.