Next generation: Students at Wash U, SLU work for socioeconomic diversity on campus | St. Louis Public Radio

Next generation: Students at Wash U, SLU work for socioeconomic diversity on campus

Jul 8, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 8, 2010 - Fernando Cutz, Chase Sackett and Jamie James aren't from St. Louis.

But like thousands of other students from around the country and the world, the three came here to get their university education. At Washington University, where Cutz and Sackett graduated in May, and at St. Louis University, where James has one more semester, the three students from different states and different backgrounds found the same thing -- a bubble.

Students at Wash U, SLU and on many other college campuses mention it often, the bubble of life that seems to encapsulate the campus, where issues the rest of the world face are often sealed out with classes and friends and parties.

And with a group Sackett and Cutz started at Wash U and that James is bringing to SLU, the three aren't trying to pop that bubble, really.

But they would like to make it bigger.

College campuses around the country openly share statistics on racial and ethnic diversity, as well as gender enrollment numbers, says Cutz.

"But the statistics aren't really public for socioeconomic diversity," he says. "Because of that, universities really kind of ignore this, and it's in their interest to do so financially."

U/FUSED stands for United for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity and has grown from WU/FUSED on the Wash U campus to SLU/FUSED on the SLU campus and into a chapter at Duke.

In the year since Cutz and Sackett started the group, they have seen progress, especially in terms of awareness. But the real work is just beginning.

DIFFERENT STROKES

Cutz, Sackett and James themselves may represent best what they're trying to achieve in their student bodies -- diversity.

Cutz was born in Brazil, his parents were successful engineers there, but moved to Florida when he was 6 because of high inflation in Brazil. Here, however, they couldn't continue their professions because their qualifications didn't transfer, and so Cutz's mother took on low-level work with city hall, and his father started his own small business.

Cutz, who attended Wash U on a full-ride scholarship, sees his family as solidly middle class.

Sackett, who is from Cincinnati, classifies his family as middle class. He attended a public high school in the suburbs, his mom is a homemaker and his dad a senior sales analyst at Proctor and Gamble. He attended Wash U on a number of scholarships.

And James, from a small town in Tennessee, was born in New Jersey to Indian parents. Her mom is a nurse. Her father is in real estate. James attended a private high school, which she says her family worked hard to send her to. She's attending SLU with financial assistance from the university.

All three have been involved in student government at their schools and also diversity work. In that work, however, all three noticed something missing. There was awareness about ethnicity, awareness about race and gender, but people's economic backgrounds weren't getting much attention.

So Cutz and Sackett formed WU/FUSED with two main goals.

The first -- to bring more students from lower-income backgrounds to Wash U.

And once those students arrive on campus, Cutz says, making sure they feel comfortable and supported, "to make sure they don't feel like they're struggling because everyone else around them seems to be well-off."

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NEED-BLIND?

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Typically, socio-economic diversity on campuses is measured by the percentage of students on campus who receive federal Pell Grants. Those go to students from low-income families, and eligibility takes into account family income and family size, among other factors, to determine how much a student will get.

"Wash U doesn't compare well to other schools," Sackett says.

Using 2007-2008 enrollment numbers, US News & World Report's Best Colleges 2010 reported Wash U's Pell number at 7 percent. By comparison, that number was 34 percent at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and 26 percent at the University of Missouri St. Louis, and 17 percent at SLU.

To achieve their first goal, Cutz and Sackett think Wash U needs to become need-blind in its admissions process.

That means colleges don't consider applicants' financial situations when those students are applying. For Wash U, Sackett says, it would be a major step.

According to Bill Widbrodt, director of student financial services at Wash U, the school's Pell number went up to 8.2 percent for the fiscal year 2010.

Wash U admits students on a need-blind basis until it reaches its budget limit, he said; then it becomes "need-aware."

"That would be wonderful," Widbrodt says of being totally need-blind. "And the university has a capital campaign to raise scholarship money in place right now so we can work toward that goal."

In addition, Wash U offers no-loan student financial aid awards that often involve work study, and Widbrodt says the school has seen an increase in socioeconomic diversity in the two years those have been in place.

WU/FUSED only had a year before Sackett and Cutz graduated, but both feel some progress was made in that time.

"I'd like to think that our main accomplishment was we really got this topic on the map at Wash U," Cutz says.

But even becoming need-blind may not be enough.

Widbrodt says that many students apply to Wash U, but getting students from lower-income backgrounds to actually enroll has proven tricky.

"We've tried to figure out why," he says.

Often, if those students are coming from out of state, they don't want to travel far from their families.

But being need-blind isn't a magic solution, either.

According to a March 2010 report from US News & World Report, about 46 colleges in the country are need-blind. And, they report, Pell Grant numbers don't say everything about the socio-economic diversity at a school, which may offer other grants and scholarships.

Chandra Taylor Smith, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, agrees.

"Primarily what it tells you is access information about getting the students on campus," she says.

Taylor Smith doesn't think being need-blind is necessarily the best way, either.

"I really think you need to look at the whole student and look at the economic background."

As important, if not more, is supporting those students once they're on campus, she says, making sure they arrive, remain and succeed ultimately in finding jobs.

US News & World Report's studies don't say anything about retention and success, she says.

"It's more than just being able to provide financial aid," she says. "That's a barrier for some campuses, but it's the support system that some students need."

And that leads to U/FUSED's second goal.

While Cutz thinks becoming need-blind would be a great first step, once on campus, lower-income students may have different needs from their better-off classmates, and schools need to be ready to meet those needs.

SUPPORT STRUCTURE

Once students are accepted to schools like Wash U, Cutz would like to see them get what he calls a comprehensive need package that helps with things like books, lab fees and the cost of traveling home a few times a year.

Also important are other kinds of support. At Wash U, Cutz would like to see something like the federal TRIO program -- where students in the program have an adviser who works with them closely, takes them on an annual trip to New York to explore the job market and offers cultural experiences many of their counterparts may have had, in effect mentoring them through their studies.

At Wash U, Cutz says the graduation rate of TRIO students is high, but only 15 percent of students who qualify for TRIO are accepted. Ideally, he'd like to see the program expanded and additionally funded through the school.

There is some stigma about being part of the TRIO program, which works with low-income and first-generation students, says James. At SLU, raising awareness about different economic backgrounds may help change that.

At SLU, Pell Grant numbers were 17 percent for 2007-08. SLU spokesman Clayton Berry says that the university has a need-blind admissions policy. 

In the coming year, she hopes to see SLU/FUSED work with the TRIO program on a policy level, and see programs that help support students once they arrive, including helping smooth out problems in the classroom, say, if they're behind in math, for instance.

While Wash U and SLU are working toward more economic diversity, at UMSL, Pell Grant numbers for 2007-08 were much higher at 26 percent. The school is need-blind, according to Greg McCalley, head of enrollment management.

UMSL also offers pre-college programs, according to Maureen Zegel, assistant director of university communications, which emphasize academic achievement and career planning. The programs are attended by both students and their parents. Since they started in 2003, 100 percent of those students have been accepted to college.

Once UMSL accepts students from low-income families, Zegel says, many offices and programs are in place to work with them and make sure they succeed.

What UMSL's doing are some of the key ingredients that schools use to successfully promote socioeconomic diversity, says Taylor Smith.

Those schools have strong support systems for existing students, pipelines to bring students in, good financial aid packages, as well as parent outreach.

But the second factor -- support, is essential for the first -- admissions. You can't increase financial aid, Taylor Smith says, without increasing support for low-income students.

FUSING IT ALL TOGETHER

While Sackett and Cutz are moving on after college, they have left new officers in charge of WU/FUSED. At SLU, James is just getting SLU/FUSED started and has a semester to work on both policy and awareness before graduating and leaving the group in new hands.

But at both schools, all three feel that increasing socio-economic diversity on campus will be meaningful to all students on campus.

"I think it cuts to the core of what the college experience really means," says Sackett. "There's a huge amount of learning that goes on outside the classroom."

Getting more low-income students into college offers the chance for social mobility, Cutz says, and helps students from all kinds of backgrounds get to know each other.

Low-income students aren't empty cups, Taylor Smith agrees. They come with different world views, different perspectives on what matters, as well as different moral and ethical perspectives, and all students benefit from learning from people who are different than themselves.

Pell grants

According to the US News & World Report "Best Colleges 2010," the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants from 2007 to 2008 are:

Southern Illinois University, Carbondale: 34 percent

University of Missouri St. Louis: 26 percent

McKendree University: 26 percent

St. Louis University: 17 percent

University of Missouri Columbia: 16 percent

Washington University: 7 percent