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Why should our universities care about teaching the underprivileged?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 6, 2011 - The St. Louis Regional College Access Pipeline Project reports that St. Louis ranks a lowly 31st among the country's 35 largest cities in the percentage of African Americans earning college degrees. And it has announced an ambitious collaborative effort to dramatically boost that rate and, more broadly, to increase access to higher education by those who start off in poorer neighborhoods with weaker schools.

This is not, however, the path to prestige for universities. Universities want to climb the US News & World Report ladder. And the surest way to do that -- expensive though it may be -- is to attract more and better applicants and reject all but the most qualified. Investing in a pipeline that also serves your competitors seems counterproductive. So why should a university care about this project?

Three reasons are worth considering: money, mission and morals.

The money argument is, in a way, about customer service. Students, contrary to popular opinion, are not always the chief customers of higher education. Customers are those who pay, not those who populate. The gardener isn't there to please the flowers, but the property owner. Students and their families only pay, on average, about one-third of the cost of their college education. The balance comes from the government, philanthropy and the universities themselves.

When the government is the biggest customer -- and that still applies to our state schools on both the WSIE and the KWMU sides of the river -- the gardener must diversify the flowers. States expect their universities to serve all of the population, and they understand that higher education for the underprivileged is a critical contributor to a more robust workforce and a stronger economy.

But our private universities have no such customer mandate. The federal government is still a big customer of theirs, due to Pell grants, federal loans and federal work study. But our privates nevertheless gain most of their income from either tuition or endowment. So, the argument from the bucks stops here.

What about mission? The success of non-profit organizations, as Peter Drucker emphasized, is not measured by how much money they make but by how well they advance their mission. Only four of our eight privates -- SLU, Webster, Fontbonne and McKendree -- even mention diverse student bodies in their expanded mission statements.

Another way of making the mission argument would be to note that a high quality education is part of every university's mission, whether diversity is explicitly mentioned or not. Diverse student bodies do enhance quality by exposing students to important alternative perspectives. But this argument is not compelling.

Diverse viewpoints add little in many subjects, such as chemistry, math and engineering. And there are many good ways of exposing students to diverse viewpoints where they do matter. After all, good colleges that are exclusively for African Americans, Native Americans, men, women or the deaf still produce well-educated graduates in spite of their intentional lack of diversity. And, alas, to get us even this far, I've had to subtly change the subject from the underprivileged to diversity -- and the two are hardly the same thing. Mission, in short, doesn't accomplish our mission.

This brings us to morality. Universities are integral players in our participatory democracy with its egalitarian commitments. These include a famous commitment to the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Whether their focus is producing research, training accountants or righting the world's wrongs, they are chartered by the government, they sit on tax-free land and they exist to prepare, in their own way, the citizens and leaders of this democracy.

If a university is not actively promoting social mobility by creating opportunities for the underprivileged to gain access to its education, it is morally defective. It is alienating the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness of those who weren't lucky enough to be born into a stable family in a good school district. It is not just leaving them behind. It is lengthening the distance they must travel to catch up, since they are left not only with a poorer education, but also with a weaker social network and with the onerous awareness of bringing up the rear.

Individual human beings face this issue on a daily basis. We are magnetized by prestige, money and power, but if we also act out of concern for those who are underprivileged, we are better human beings.

Universities are made up of human beings. And when they act out of concern for the underprivileged, they are better universities. At the same time they set a moral example for all of their students, thereby enhancing learning and better advancing their mission. Our universities have good reason to work together to fill the college access pipeline.

About the Author

David Carl Wilson is dean of Webster University's College of Arts & Sciences. During his tenure, the first endowed professorship in Webster's history has been established and many new programs have been launched.

Wilson also serves as professor of philosophy at Webster, covering such topics such as reasoning, ethics, science, religion, higher education and leadership. He earned his PhD in philosophy from UCLA, where he taught and served as associate provost until he came to Webster in 2002. He is the author of the McGraw-Hill textbook, "A Guide to Good Reasoning."

He has served as a fellow with the American Council on Education and is now on the executive committee of ACE's Council of Fellows where he co-chairs its national outreach and engagement committee.

Wilson chairs the board of directors of Upstream Theater and is an active board member for the Academy of Science-St. Louis, the Missouri Biotechnology Association, the Missouri Institute of Biotechnology and Innovation, the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and the German American Heritage Society. He chairs the ethics committee for the St. Louis Science Center.

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