We are the Watusi


Walter Kimbrough

Recently there has been considerable buzz about the White House Summit with college and university leaders. This group met to discuss ways to increase the entrance and success of low income students in college. The event was dominated by schools deemed the best in the nation, those with the strongest students, lots of money and influence, and great rankings. In many ways that makes perfect sense. The actions of higher education’s elite institutions command media attention that ensures this important topic becomes part of the nation’s agenda.

The frank discussions about college access and success of low-income students also allow the nation to confront reality. A 2011 study by the Pell Institute suggested the threat of income-based inequality in education is a key obstacle in reaching President Obama’s 2020 education goal. The facts are shocking. Bachelor’s degree attainment by age 24 for dependent students from the bottom half of the income distribution was only 12%. The same group from the top half had a rate of 58.8%.

Similarly, a 2012 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts examined economic mobility across generations. In short, 66% raised in the bottom two rungs of the income ladder stay there, and 66% raised at the top stay there. For blacks, 50% remain stuck in the very bottom, and are twice as likely as whites to fall from the middle to the bottom two rungs. The good news is degree attainment triples the chances of moving from the bottom to the top, and greatly reduces the likelihood of remaining trapped at the bottom.

With these sobering statistics, as a nation, we must ensure that no matter where a student starts, they will have the opportunity to receive a college education so that they can not only improve their own lives, but also change the fortunes of future generations. They need to not only be welcomed into higher education, but actively sought out and encouraged to work toward a degree. They should be assured that they won’t be judged by what they don’t have, but rather by what they may become.

Sounds like the story of many of the nation’s minority serving institutions.

While the nation’s elite institutions play a critical role in our educational ecosystem, serving low income students is not their area of expertise. While 36% of the nation’s college students qualify for the Pell Grant, coming from families which earn less than $40,000 a year, many of the participants at this “low income access” summit have percentages of Pell grant students in the teens. Furthermore, in the race for prestige driven by US News rankings, their percentages of low income students have declined over the past few decades.

Going forward, I hope that the real experts in educating low income students are not only involved but take the lead in this important issue. A few of my Black college president colleagues were in attendance, but they were a decisive minority. Even fewer Hispanic serving and tribal colleges were invited. And yet, these sectors enroll the greatest numbers of low-income students. Black colleges have enrollments where nearly 70% of all students are Pell recipients, a figure higher than that of community colleges.

Considering the data on low income student degree attainment, black colleges in particular, overperform despite tremendous odds against these students. So instead of bringing foundations together with wealthy schools that have no real incentive to enroll massive numbers of low income students (rankings ensure that), why not team foundations with schools whose missions specifically focus on students with the most need? That way, we focus resources where they are needed with the people committed to this mission since their inception.

In the 1967 classic, “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” someone asks Sidney Portier’s character why Black kids are good dancers. He replies, “You can do the Watusi, but we are the Watusi.” When it comes to success educating low-income students, Minority Serving Institutions are the Watusi.

Many at the recent summit were there saying they want to learn it.

Walter Kimbrough is President of Dillard University and an Advisory Board member of Penn’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions.


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