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Funding to Guarantee the Educational Success of Underrepresented Students

By Tatiana Melguizo

Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities by Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Broke is an important and timely book. It describes the strategies of two “new universities,” defined as institutions that decided to embrace a mission that nurtures the poten­tial of underrepresented minority students (URMs) and pursues high research ambitions for faculty. The title of the book has multiple meanings: it serves not only as a reminder of a broken postsec­ondary system that continues to segregate students by both race and social class—and of a system that is economically broken because of federal and state defunding and a pervasive logic of austerity—but also as an allusion to the need to break the mold of the traditional research university by challenging status hierarchies and embracing a model that attracts URMs and nurtures their potential.

Through the lens of what the authors call “postsecondary racial neoliberalism,” Broke illustrates how, despite an increase in access to postsecondary education at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) for URMs, the defund­ing of higher education has led to a racially and socioeconomi­cally segregated higher education system. The authors’ placement of race at the center of their analysis of the neoliberal economic model is unique, convincing, and timely. At a time when we are struggling to reemerge from a pandemic, and when the Biden administration is attempting to disrupt the pernicious cycle of disinvestment, the book offers a window into understanding the perils of continuing to operate according to a logic of austerity. The authors propose to break or simply abandon the old neoliberal model, which rewards elite institu­tions for having selected students who are likely to graduate, in favor of a model that rewards the institu­tions with the largest majority of URMs for serving the public good.

The book starts by introducing the concept of the “new university,” its political and economic context, and the racial implications of neolib­eralism in higher education. Broke is organized into three major sections.

The first section, “The Chang­ing Face of the UC,” introduces the reader to the two institutions that are the focus of the book: the University of California, Riverside, and the University of California, Merced, both part of the pres­tigious University of California system. The book uses cross-campus comparisons to explore the impact of postsecondary racial neoliberalism on new universi­ties. Chapter 1, “Battle with the Rankings,” describes the reinven­tion of UC Riverside in the early 1990s, when the university made the strategic choice to capitalize on the large number of URMs not being served by the UC system and advance the idea of “inclu­sive excellence” as a new status criterion. The chapter illustrates the racial bias built into assess­ments of student “merit” and how meritocracy has been used to justify segregation in higher education by devaluing both URMs and the universities serving them. We learn how leaders at this “new” university, which opened in 1954, have challenged the monopoly of the U.S. News and World Report rank­ings and pushed for the inclusion of additional measures that account for successfully supporting a large proportion of URMs. Chapter 2, “P3 Paradise,” illustrates how UC Merced, which opened in 2005 at a time of state disinvestment and didn’t have the research infrastruc­ture of the other campuses, had to engage in a risky public-private part­nership (P3) to build and maintain large portions of its campus. The chapter provides a cautionary tale for institutions that might want to pursue this new type of funding ven­ture. The first section of the book concludes with chapter 3, “Running Political Cover,” which examines the position of these two new universi­ties in the broad UC ecosystem and provides examples of how they do the lion’s share of the system’s “institutional diversity work”— work that is mostly used for public relations but is not financially compensated by the system.

The second section of the book, Responses to Underfunding,” is an examination of two strategies new universities use to navigate the limits of public financial support. Chap­ter 4, “Austerity Administration,” describes pressures on institutions to grow larger, cut costs, be “market-smart,” and think nationally and internationally in their recruitment efforts. The authors illustrate how the pervasiveness of austerity logic stops institutions from challenging this logic and demanding more state support; instead, it creates incentives to disinvest from the support services that URMs need to succeed. Chapter 5, “Tolerable Suboptimization,” is a stark account from the point of view of racially marginalized students and frontline staff in academic advising, mental-health services, and cultural programming at UC Merced of the way the institution has adopted the practice of providing the minimum support to students.

The third section, “Dealing in Diversity,” is a powerful account of two very different models that the book’s two focus institutions have adopted to attend to racial issues in the new university. UC Riverside decided to invest in cultural centers that serve the unique needs of students from dif­ferent racial and ethnic groups. UC Merced adopted a budget-friendly, “inclusive” approach designed to serve all students equally well that inadvertently ended up increasing the racial equity labor that URM students, faculty, and staff under­take to make campus safe and welcoming to students of color. Chapter 7, “Marketing Diversity,” explains the ethical quandaries that arise when new universities obtain much-needed funding by con­necting their talented URMs with predominantly white corporations that are seeking to diversity their workforce. The authors illustrate how this collaboration might be detrimental to the students as it gives them access to jobs mostly in the services sector, where they will likely be expected to do racialized work—such as supporting diversity initiatives—to advance their careers within corporations.

The authors conclude by offering five interrelated recommendations.

Challenge diversity logics. They advocate for institutions to organize around an equity-oriented logic as opposed to one that advances only superficial notions of diversity and for devoting university resources to strengthen­ing equity-oriented infrastructure and communities. They highlight how UC Riverside’s cultural centers offer an exceptional model.

Abolish the SAT. They argue that the SAT serves as a powerful mechanism for legitimizing racialized hierarchies, without directly invoking race, and pro­vides cover for inaccurate science with white supremacist roots. They advocate for either using multiple measures in admitting students (for example, including holistic attention to additional forms of achievement that may not be cap­tured by traditional test scores) or going test-blind, as the UC system recently announced it would. They even suggest moving to lottery admissions to radically democra­tize opportunity. The greater the randomness, the less chance for tinkering in ways that preserve racial and economic privilege.

Combat organizational hier­archies. They illustrate how new universities have coalesced around the University Innovation Alliance (UIA), a “coalition of public research universities committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in the United States,” putting front and center the need for a broader coalition of institu­tions that serve the public good and are proud to serve URMs. They advocate for expanding the UIA so these universities can join forces and refuse to submit information to U.S. News and World Report indefinitely or until the publication changes its ranking methodology to reflect the public mission of higher education. If enough universities drop out of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, its monopoly will be challenged.

Encourage collaborative systems. Public universities should view other campuses as allies, not potential rivals. They advocate for following the example of California’s K–12 and community college funding formulas, which provide more fund­ing for institutions that serve a large proportion of low-income students.

Reinvest in public higher educa­tion. Probably the most radical of their recommendations is to move toward funding higher education institutions as opposed to students. States might offer greater funding to public universities that serve higher proportions of in-state residents, URMs, and low-income students and can demonstrate a positive impact on local and regional health, education, and economies.

They contend that following these interconnected recommenda­tions might lead the way to a very different system that is more col­lective, communal, and focused on challenging structures of oppres­sion—through student efforts to resist austerity, racism, and exploitation.

The authors conclude by challenging neoliberal economic assumptions, arguing that the cur­rent inequities are not a natural or inevitable outcome of imper­sonal “market forces” but rather a result of social structures designed to benefit a small fraction of the population. Leaving the cur­rent system in place—which uses color-blind competitions between students for spots in well-resourced universities and between public universities trying to secure ever-diminishing funds from the state and donors—is not good for any but the wealthiest institutions and the most privileged individuals.

Tatiana Melguizo is a professor in the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She works in the field of economics of higher education, using quantita­tive methods of analysis to study the impact of educational programs and public policies on the persistence and educational outcomes of minority and low-income students. Her email address is melguizo@usc.edu.

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