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Column: Diversity at Grinnell: the great admissions myth

Williams, Colgate, Hamilton—names that often invoke a resounding gag around here—need to be reconsidered. To us, these “peer institutions” reek of a putrid, Greek-system-pervaded culture dominated by rich white kids with fat trust funds. In contrast, Grinnell, our pastoral haven in the heart of the salt-of-the-earth Midwest, has long remained a sanctuary for diversity and inclusion.

The administration has appropriated this image, constantly reminding us of our moral high ground with bogus symbols like the green ribbons the graduating class wore last year at commencement, which supposedly signified our intention to retain Grinnell’s socially conscious character in our postgraduate lives. The students, myself included, have also done their share in perpetuating this mirage, as we often believe it, buy into it and regurgitate it to each other and to our friends outside of Grinnell.

This is why many of my friends were surprised when I recently showed them a 2003 study published in The Journal for Blacks in Higher Education. After employing “13 widely accepted quantitative measures of institutional racial integration,” the study identified Grinnell as the worst elite small college in the country for blacks, well behind Hamilton and Colgate and all those other Phaethon.

Certainly, one would think that the College has changed since 2003. After all, the arrival of the venerable Posse program has dramatically enhanced diversity. But here’s the disturbing news: if we didn’t have Posse, which consists of several students for whom tuition is paid, we’d actually have a lower percentage of African-American first-years now than we did in the ’01-’02 school year. This means that the admissions office has made no progress whatsoever in recruiting black students on its own since 2002, a year before the country’s leading academic journal for minorities in higher education gave us their last-place distinction. And we wore green ribbons for that?

Another JBHE article reported that the average admissions rate for blacks between 1995 and 2004 was only 43.4 percent at Grinnell, lower than our overall average during that period, 50.4 percent. This is an extraordinarily bizarre statistic, since most schools admit black applicants at a higher rate.

Grinnell’s lack of diversity extends to socioeconomic class as well. Perhaps most disconcerting is a third study by the Journal, examining the presence of low-income students on campuses in 2007. Grinnell ranked 15 out of the 30 liberal arts colleges surveyed. Our percentage of Pell Grant recipients plummeted between 1993 and 2007, a timeframe when our endowment mushroomed. This is particularly embarrassing given the fact that our endowment in 2007 dwarfed those of places like Scripps, Oberlin and Mount Holyoke, each of which sat comfortably ahead of Grinnell in the study.

The administration may very well throw the worn Mark Twain quote about statistics at me, but the fact of the matter is that they maintain a completely masturbatory conceptualization of Grinnell, the green ribbons serving as the most glaring evidence of this. We’d be wise to take a hint from Iowa’s U.S. Senator, Charles Grassley. Even though Grassley is a member of the most vilified, marginalized group of Voldemorts at Grinnell—the Republicans—he’s had some excellent ideas about higher education. Grassley questioned whether exceedingly wealthy colleges, such as Harvard, should really have tax-exempt, non-profit status because they spend so little of their treasure chests and when they do it’s on lavish buildings and cosmetics, not students.

This is not the way a non-profit organization should function, Grassley argued. He stated that if rich colleges don’t start spending a lot more money on students, he’d pursue legislation to have their tax-exempt status repealed. Though they won’t say it overtly, Harvard introduced a sweeping overhaul of their budget in response to Grassley’s threats, devoting substantially more resources to financial aid. Soon, other colleges followed suit.

I’d encourage our new Dean of Admission, Seth Allen, to begin aggressively recruiting more low-income students, underrepresented minority students, and students from military families, before he faces public criticism from academic journals, or worse, a powerful U.S. Senator. It’s too early to tell whether Allen represents the perverted corporate culture of the recent past, or whether he will make an earnest effort to help rescue our ravaged Mission Statement.

The marginal improvement in Latino enrollees this year is a good sign, but it doesn’t offset the data on Pell Grants, blacks, and the fact that only 30 percent of applicants were offered financial aid this year, a startling divergence from years past. Enrolling more low-income students in a time of economic peril would enable Allen to exhibit his professional talent and consequently transform him into a revered figure on campus. But in effect, he’s done absolutely nothing about this so far. Just look at the statistics.

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    Smita SharmaFeb 22, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you Harsha, for a wonderful and eye-opening article. Indeed, for lack of experience and having never previously encountered the JBHE, I wouldn’t have thought we were very different from other liberal arts colleges with regards to our enrolment of black students. I’m ashamed to read what they had to say about Grinnell:

    “Grinnell College: Ranking last in our survey is Grinnell College of Iowa. While its overall black enrollments are 4 percent of the student body, Grinnell scored last in its percentage of black freshmen this year at 1.4 percent. Grinnell posted a black student yield of only 15.6 percent, down more than 20 points in recent years. Grinnell also has a low level of black faculty.
    One encouraging trend is that the black student graduation rate has improved by six percentage points over the past three years. ”

    By the way, it really is awful that we’re not doing a much better job recruiting black and Latino students AND faculty. We’re losing academic talent, but also, and I fear worse, we’re failing to use liberal arts to create critical and empowered citizens among those who come from the most marginalised and impoverished pockets of society, citizens who would be uniquely placed to change things for the better. Grinnell’s admissions folk are too limited in their vision of what Grinnell can do for the country (and for the world). Please continue to remind them that they’re not doing nearly enough.

    And please continue to remind us Grinnellians that our bubble is more illusory and less wholesome than we have come to expect. We too must do what we can to change things. (I don’t want our green ribbons to be bogus statements.)

    Anyway, keep up the great work. I will be sure to look for your column every Friday!