From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary.
Michael Moore: The students that we have have been told time and time again, “Well, people like you don’t go to college.”
Amber Ortiz-Diaz: I’m going to go to college. I’m going to prove you wrong.
More Americans from more diverse backgrounds are going to college.
Brooke Brownell: I just remember almost being afraid to touch things. I was like–it just felt out of my league.
As the face of the country changes, colleges have to change, too.
Steve Riter: If we didn’t find a way to be welcoming, we wouldn’t have anybody to be a student.
I’m Stephen Smith. In the coming hour: “The New Face of College,”from American RadioWorks. First this news.
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary: The New Face of College. I’m Stephen Smith.
The character of American college campuses is changing. The teenager who graduates from high school, goes right on to college and graduates in four years, with parents footing the bill, that’s yesterday’s student. Today’s student is likely to be someone very different.
Jaiden: I’m ready.
Amber Ortiz-Diaz: You’re ready?
Ortiz-Diaz: Ok. Can you stand up? So this is a humerus.
Jaiden:[Tries to say, “It’s a humerus.”]
This is Amber Ortiz-Diaz. She’s a third year college student at Heritage University in Central Washington State. She’s at home studying for an anatomy class. She grabs her three-year-old son Jaiden and massages his arms and legs.
Ortiz-Diaz: And the tibia.
Ortiz-Diaz: And the fibia.
She names the scientific terms for each body part.
Ortiz-Diaz:Let me massage your scapula. Can you say scapula?
Ortiz-Diaz: Ok, thank you.
Amber is a single mom. She had Jaiden when she was 18. Today, they share a small, tidy, three-bedroom trailer with her dad and sister.
[Amber kisses Jaiden and laughs.]
Amber grew up picking apples and cherries with her parents, who came here from Mexico to work in the orchards.
Ortiz-Diaz: We’d wake up really early, get the ladder, go up there and pick the good apples, and go tree by tree, and how many bins you fill is how much you get paid. And it’s exhausting. It came to the point where you’re, like, you’re working for a week, and you’re just so exhausted that when you would rest you’d close your eyes, and you would see apples.
Until recently, someone like Amber would have been unlikely to enroll in college. But the number of Hispanic students going to US colleges is skyrocketing. Colleges are also seeing more students who have children and more students who are low-income, people who need to work while they go to school. But those are not the people colleges tend to be set up to serve.
Gloria Nemerowicz: We have long tradition of higher education serving a particular sector of the American public and not serving the majority, frankly.
Gloria Nemerowicz is Executive Director of Yes We Must, a coalition of colleges that serve low-income students.
Nemerowicz: We’ve too easily let low-income people be left out, and that has not been healthy.
Nemerowicz says getting more people through college leads to a host of good things: healthier families, healthier communities, higher voting levels. And it’s crucial if the US is going to stay competitive in the global economy. She says the country will need a LOT more college graduates to fill the jobs of the future.
Nemerowicz: If we’re going to make progress in this area, it’s going to be with those who are not already in the pipeline to college, who have been underrepresented in college-going students for a long time.
Already the number of people in those groups who are going to college is rising. But so-called “nontraditional students”are less likely to finish college than their traditional classmates. The biggest challenge is money. Half of all college students get a degree within six years, but only a quarter of low-income students do. Another big challenge is that many colleges just aren’t geared for nontraditional students.
In this hour, we visit three colleges that are trying to serve the new student by changing everything from when the dining hall is open to what they mean when they talk about success. Our story begins at the school Amber attends. Producer Samara Freemark visited Heritage University in Eastern Washington State.
[Sounds of shuffling around in lab]
Melvin Simoyi: Guys, put your lab coats on, and then we can gather around here. We’ll be assisting each other.
Samara Freemark: Heritage anatomy professor Melvin Simoyi pulls a preserved cat out of a cooler. It’s been skinned and partially dissected.
Simoyi: This is it right here.Do you see this?
Students: Okay. Oh.
Simoyi: Uh, you know, deep femoral artery and vein.
Amber Ortiz-Diaz and four of her classmates, all of them Mexican-American women, gather around as Dr. Simoyi points at the cat’s circulatory system with a scalpel.
Simoyi: What’s this one?
Students: Superior vena cava.
Simoyi: The superior vena cava. Ok, very good. What about this?
Student: …Cephalic trunk? Artery?
Two of the women here want to become nurses. The other three want to go to medical school. Amber wants to be an OB/GYN.
Ortiz-Diaz: Being the one caring for a pregnant woman with their child, all the way to birth, being the one saying, “Hey, you’re having a boy,” or, “Hey, you’re having a girl.” I mean, imagine being on the doctor’s side of it. I would not mind doing this for the rest of my life. I would not. I would wake up excited, I would wake up just so motivated to do this.
Amber’s parents didn’t have much education. Her father finished fifth grade, and her mom dropped out of high school.
Ortiz-Diaz: It’s hard to ask for help from your parents growing up through school. Can you help me with my math homework? No, ‘cause I didn’t learn that, or I don’t know. Can you help me with my English homework? Well, I don’t speak English. How can I help you with that? You know?
But they always wanted Amber to get a degree.
Ortiz-Diaz: My parents always told us, “If you don’t get to your homework, if you don’t get good grades, this is what your life is gonna be.” And they told us every day. They would always say, like “Te vas a andar matando en los files.” That you’d be killing yourselves at the fields, you know, working very hard for a little bit of money.
Amber got good grades in high school. She says that her teachers loved her. They had big plans for her; she was going to be one of those kids who got out, who made something of her life. And then, her junior year, Amber got pregnant.
Ortiz-Diaz: People weren’t very nice. The expectation is, oh she got pregnant; she’s not going to do anything with her life. A lot of my teachers, one in particular, she told me, “You’re not going to go to college. This is a mistake.” And I was very upset with her. I told her, I was like, “You know what? I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to prove you wrong.”
Amber finished high school, and she won a scholarship that paid for four years at a private college. But she didn’t want to move away from home with a new baby. Luckily for her, there’s a four-year college nearby.
Heritage University was founded in 1982, by a Catholic nun and two Native women from the nearby Yakama Reservation. Their goal was to bring a quality education to an isolated population.
Three decades later, the college has expanded to almost 900 undergrads.And as more immigrants arrive to work in the Yakama Valley, the demographics of the school have changed as well. Today, most students are the children of migrant farm workers from Mexico.
John Bassett:Many students arrive not quite sure what college is all about always.
Heritage President John Bassett came to the Valley in 2010 after a career spent at a string of more prestigious universities. The troubles of isolated, first-generation students were new to him.
Bassett: You know, you live here in the Valley; your family picks fruit; you don’t have a lot of money. There are problems they face that make it very hard for them to go to college. They have to really want to to get through.
Heritage offers programs for migrant workers, programs for Native Americans, programs for first generation students, college retention classes, tutoring, mentoring, and a barrage of remedial classes for students who aren’t quite ready for college when they come in. Some staff members even visit students at home.
[Outside: Sound of dogs barking, knocking door. Door opens.]
Olivia Gutierrez: Buenas tardes! Como esta?
I’ve come with Olivia Gutierrez, Heritage’s Director of Admissions, to check up on a student named Joanna Gonzalez. Joanna spent a semester at Heritage but dropped out last spring to take care of her nieces and nephews. She re-enrolled this semester. Gutierrez is here to make sure school is going okay and that Joanna stays in this time.
Veronica Gonzalez: Hola mi hija! Como estas?
Joanna is 20. She lives with her father Victor,hermother Veronica, and five other relatives. They live just down the road from Heritage, in a little house surrounded by the fields where Victor picks hops. One day the farmer who owns the land brought Olivia Gutierrez in to talk to his workers about higher education. And that’s how she met Joanna, who had been thinking about going to community college.
Joanna Gonzalez: And she took me and gave me a tour of the campus, and I really liked it. And I said, “Ok, this is much better for me. It’s not as big, and I won’t get lost. This is perfect.”
But Joanna’s parents were nervous about the whole idea of college.
[Veronica Gonzalez speaking in Spanish]
“For us it was something very difficult,”Veronica Gonzalez says. “We knew college was expensive. It was hard to look for scholarships and money to pay for college. We didn’t understand the help that was out there.”
[Veronica continuing in Spanish]
Navigating the college process, with its financial aid documents and applications, is really complicated, Olivia says. Especially for immigrant families.
Gutierrez: Oh my God, and try opening one of those documents. It is scary. It is scary. They ask a lot of questions that are very worrisome for a lot of our students. You know, “Are your parents married?” “What is the family situation?” It’s hard for them to understand when, you know, it’s hard for them to spell their name.
Gutierrez understands. She came from a family that was a lot like Joanna’s.
Gutierrez: Growing up in a migrant family we had no idea there was college or that there was anything beyond high school. And education was not something that was ever talked about. What was important for us was to learn to work hard, clean the house, do the house chores.
Gutierrez dropped out of school and was working as a waitress when a customer told her about the GED. Eventually, she went back to school, earned a Bachelor’s in business from Heritage. Ten years later, she’s the school’s Admissions Director.
Gutierrez: For me to be able to say, I know what it is to get up at three in the morning to pick those cherries. I know what it is to cut asparagus. I know exactly what it is to do that work. And I know exactly what a college education can do for their children, to tell them that it can be done. Because we are a fast-growing minority, and we are the less-educated. And we have to start doing something about it, because what are we going to look like a few decades from now if we are not pushing our children to get an education.
Heritage is trying to push, with its support programs and flexible class schedules. But Heritage’s graduation rates are stubbornly low. Fewer than a fifth of the students finish in six years.
Boosting graduation rates is one of President Bassett’s top priorities. Ironically, he says that means that the school has to become more selective. The school used to accept pretty much any applicant, but now it encourages some students to try a year or two at a community college before coming to Heritage.
Bassett: If you and I can’t look at each other eyeball to eyeball and say, “This student has a good chance to succeed, it may be unethical for us to accept that student, because he’s going to accrue debt, he’s going to flunk out and feel bad about himself, feel bad about education. Our door is still open to the student that’s willing to work hard and is ready to learn here. And we will provide the help to get them through. So I don’t believe we really are denying access to anybody who has a chance to succeed here.
Succeeding means different things for different students. For some people, success might mean getting out of a place like the Valley. But some people can’t leave, and some don’t want to. Amber Ortiz-Diaz wants to stay.
Ortiz-Diaz: In this Valley right now, there’s a lot of things that need to be changed. And I’ve always, always wanted to stay local, to feel like I’m making a difference. Coming back to your community and serving for them. And to succeed and people to be like, “Oh, you know, that’s Amber. Amber’s doing something, you know.” That’s just what I want to do.
This summer, Ortiz-Diaz started an internship at Pacific Northwest University, a medical school that opened recently near Heritage. She’s got a mentor at the school who’s helping her get ready to apply for admission. When she’s finally done with her education, she says, she wants to buy a little house for her and Jaiden up in the hills above the Valley, and open her own OB/GYN practice, serving the kind of teenage mother she used to be.
Smith: That’s producer Samara Freemark. You’re listening to “The New Face of College”from American RadioWorks. I’m Stephen Smith.
For a lot of students at Heritage University, the biggest barrier to finishing college is money. Tuition at Heritage is about $18,500 a year. That’s fairly cheap for a private, four-year school, but it’s still a real stretch for the kinds of students the school attracts, even with grants and loans.
But what if the money problem just went away? What if a student from a poor family could go to the top private four year school in the country and not have to worry about cost?
Amherst College in Massachusetts is routinely ranked the number one or number two liberal arts school in the country, and Amherst is on a mission to diversify its student body. The college has begun admitting students regardless of need, and it covers their costs.
Amherst is finding though that paying the tuition isn’t enough. The college is having to change to make sure that its new students feel welcome and that they make it through.
Suzanne Pekow has the story.
Tour Guide: So right now we’re approaching the first-year quad…
Suzanne Pekow: A chipper tour guide herds a group of high school seniors across the campus of Amherst College. It’s a warm spring day, and the campus looks like the kind of place you imagine when you think of New England colleges: old brick buildings, a sprawling, grassy quad framed by just-budding trees, and big, green Adirondack chairs where students are reading books in the sunshine. The admissions staff couldn’t have created a better day to sell Amherst to the visiting high school students.
Lilly Mommens: My name is Lilly Mommens, and I’m from Portage in Wisconsin.
Lilly Mommens is a tall, lanky teenager with long, straight, blond hair. Lilly is a star student, and she thinks she’ll go to Amherst, but there’s just one thing…
Mommens: Um, well, we’re poor [laughs]. Um, we’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices, and we’ve been on food stamps before and things like that. So for a long time I didn’t even think I could go to college, because I’d have to be home working to help pay for things.
But Lilly actually can afford to go to Amherst. Even though the sticker price is $60,000, most students won’t pay that much. The school has offered Lilly a financial aid package that’ll make her total out-of-pocket cost per year about $7,000. That’s a number she and her family can handle, and she won’t have to take out any loans.
The admissions office has paid for Lily and about 160 of her peers to fly here this weekend from across the country to make sure they know they’re wanted at Amherst. It’s part of a larger effort to woo high-achieving, low-income students.
This represents a sea change in the history of Amherst.
If you look at yearbooks from the 1960s, you’ll see all men, most of them white. This is a place that used to be reserved for the sons of the wealthy elite.
Austin Sarat: When I arrived 40 years ago, the thing that struck me was the privilege of the place.
Austin Sarat is a professor of jurisprudence and political science.
Sarat: And I remember walking through the parking lot – the student parking lot – and seeing the cars that the students brought to campus, which were much nicer than anything I was driving, or could imagine driving.
Sarat came to teach at Amherst in the early 1970s. The college was still all male; women weren’t admitted until 1975. Amherst and other colleges were starting to use affirmative action to admit more students of color, but for decades, it was only a slow trickle of new faces on campus. And then in the early 2000s, something changed.
Elizabeth Aries: When Tony Marx came on board – and I’ve never forgotten this – he came into a faculty meeting early on, and he said, “We need to think about who our students should be.”
Elizabeth Aries is a professor of psychology. She’s remembering her first encounter with former president Anthony Marx.
Aries: And that really struck me. I’d been here at that point for 30 years, and no one had actually raised the question, “Who should our students be?”
When Marx started at Amherst in 2004, he had a history of working for social equality. During apartheid, he helped set up a school for Black students in South Africa. In Marx’s view, Amherst College had been participating in a system where the rich were getting richer; the poor were staying where they were.
Anthony Marx: We thought we could be a better college if we had a larger mix of students.
That’s Tony Marx, who’s now president of the New York Public Library. Marx says Amherst had drifted away from its founding mission.
Marx: Originally, it began with a careful look at the history of Amherst, which, if you look at it, unlike many of its peer institutions, the charter founding it, with a sort of missionary zeal, talked about training the indigent.
During Marx’s time at Amherst, he spoke around the country about the need for colleges to provide high-quality education to all students, regardless of their ability to pay. He also helped launch a campaign that ultimately raised more than half a billion dollars for the school. That meant a lot more money for scholarships.
Brooke Brownell: My name is Brooke Brownell. I’m from Ware, Massachusetts.
Brooke Brownell is sitting on her unmade bed in Morris Pratt dormitory. She’s got Christmas lights strung up on the walls and books and papers scattered around, like a typical college student. But she’s not a typical college student. Brooke is 29 years old.
Brownell: This dorm is very loud. I didn’t realize it was going to be this loud. With, you know, drunk students [laughs]. It’s college.
Even though she’s older than most of her peers, Brooke wanted to live in the dorms, because she’s a transfer student, and she didn’t want to feel isolated as a commuter. A couple years ago, when Brooke’s community college professor told her she should apply to Amherst, she thought he was nuts. She grew up in a working class family in Western Massachusetts, and her impression of the school was always–
Brownell: –rich, really smart kids.
But she applied, and to her surprise, not only did she get accepted, but the school offered her a full ride. When Brooke stepped on campus, she says it felt surreal.
Brownell: I just remember almost being afraid to touch things. I was like, “Oh I don’t, how could I even, like, stay here?” Like, it just felt out of my league, I guess.
But now she’s thriving at Amherst. Her grades are good, and one corner of her dorm room has a wall full of ribbons she’s won riding horses for the Amherst equestrian team. That’s something she never would have been able to afford on her own.
Students like Brooke can do all this because Amherst has adopted a need-blind policy, meaning the college considers your application for admission without regard to how much money you have. And also, it’s committed to meeting full need, so that if you get accepted, you won’t have to take out loans as part of your financial aid package. This approach is very rare. Most scholarship money in America actually goes to students who could afford to go to college without it. It’s called merit aid.
Stephen Burd: Merit aid is, actually, it’s a very loose term. The way most people think about it is money to top students.
Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation. He studies student financial aid, and he says for years there’s been a kind of merit aid “arms race”going on. Colleges are competing for wealthy students and luring them in with merit scholarships.
Burd: Families like to think that it’s rewarding their children for doing well, but there’s a lot of merit aid that just isn’t going just to the best and brightest students but is actually just going to students who are wealthy enough to come in.
Burd says what Amherst and a handful of other prestigious institutions like MIT and Vassar are doing is uncommon –actively recruiting low-income students and making a large pool of financial aid available to them. He says there’s no financial incentive for colleges to do this, so the only colleges that are really opening up their doors are ones that can afford it and feel a moral obligation to be more accessible.
Burd: What we’ve seen is the leaders at Amherst, particularly the former president Anthony Marx, really made it a personal mission to make one of the most exclusive private colleges in the country one of the most socioeconomically diverse.
But in the early 2000s, when Amherst put its foot on the gas to bring in more low-income students, some people worried the school would lose some of its academic rigor. Others worried about whether the new students would feel welcome there. Here’s Professor Austin Sarat again.
Sarat: So it’s one thing to say, “Come. Come to our institution,” without thinking, what do we have to do to prepare the ground so that the students who come to a place like this from a variety of backgrounds, all of them have a fair shot.
Sarat says when the new students began arriving, he was forced to rethink how he teaches. He had to figure out how to teach someone who hadn’t necessarily gone to the best high school but who could excel with a little extra guidance.
Sarat: I think for teachers like me, the diversification of the student body has been a great benefit. And what I think is that I’m a livelier, better, more engaged teacher than I might have otherwise been had the student body not changed.
Other professors say their classrooms have changed for the better too. Elizabeth Aries used to assign J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. And she says her students would sympathize with Holden Caulfield, the wealthy kid who keeps getting kicked out of prep school. When Aries taught this book in a new, more diverse classroom, she started to hear things like:
Aries: “I have no sympathy for this character. He gets chance after chance after chance. I’m here, and I’ve got one chance at an education. I fail out of here–I don’t get a second chance. I find him to be whiny and complaining and not sympathetic at all.” Well, that sets other people who found him to be such a sympathetic young man, sets them back on their heels, to see it through that lens.
To get this kind of diversity in its classrooms, Amherst has had to work hard on recruitment. It’s not that talented poor students aren’t out there. But many high-achieving low-income students don’t believe they can get in to selective private colleges or afford tuition. So they don’t apply. Amherst works with organizations that help match low-income kids with selective schools that can offer them scholarships. The college also sends recruiters to places they never used to go before, and it sponsors special weekends like this one, where it hosts low-income students from across the country. Today, a fifth of the Amherst student body is poor enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants, which are only available to needy students. At most elite schools, that number is much lower.
Roshard Bryant: Um, can I have everybody’s attention real quick? So, thank you all for falling for the bait…
Roshard Bryant towers over a group of visiting high schoolers who have gathered this evening at Amherst’s Community Engagement Center. Roshard is six-foot-eight and slim. He’s a senior from the Bronx. On a campus of only 1,800 students, Roshard doesn’t blend in. When he arrived at Amherst, he felt a little uncomfortable. But he thought at least he could find black students at Amherst that would be like him.
Bryant: Because I grew up in the Bronx, where I was one of the stronger students in my school, I thought everyone here would be like me, “Ok, we’re all the strong students from our urban high schools, these public schools. Everyone’s gonna struggle, too.” And I ended up realizing that one: not everyone was from the Bronx or an urban setting. Not everyone was from a lower-income or working-class background. I met a lot of black students who were wealthy, and that was a first for me.
Roshard was worried he wasn’t going to be as prepared for college as some of his more well-off peers. He got help from a summer program designed to ease the transition to Amherst, but he felt like he was constantly one step behind everyone else, and he always had to ask for extensions on papers.
Bryant: I think one of the hardest things as a person of color here is going to a white professor, or going to any professor, but especially going to a white professor, who may not know where you’re coming from and having to say, “I need an extension,” over and over and over again. It became the story of my life. And, you know, I finished with all A’s at the end of my freshman year, but I finished with this sense of, you’re not doing it the way everyone else is doing it. You’re–always need an exception. You’re not, you know, at the level that everyone else is.
Aries: There are many more challenges that the lower-income and Black students faced on this campus than the affluent white students.
Here’s psychology professor Elizabeth Aries again. She wrote a book on race and class at Amherst.
Aries: Because they’re coming into an environment that is utterly unfamiliar to them. As far as some of them were concerned, they’d been dropped on Mars; whereas, this is a continuation of a world that the affluent students have already known.
Nedia Morsy: I’ve always been among students who were just like me, had similar backgrounds –
That’s Nedia Morsy. She’s a graduating senior from New Jersey.
Morsy: –like, their parents were most likely immigrants, and they were first in their family to go to college, which is not the sort of experience I got here.
Nedia is a first-generation student who says she really struggled to fit in at Amherst.
Morsy: It has been unbelievably difficult, I think. It’s just, I feel like where I’m from in New Jersey or my experiences thus far, have been like diversity was never an initiative. That was the surrounding I lived in. And I think I didn’t even have to confront my identity. I didn’t even have an identity before I came to Amherst. Then I automatically became, well, Mexican or Puerto Rican by default, because that’s what the assumption was.
Nedia’s mom is Peruvian, and her dad is Egyptian. She told me she wished Amherst offered some sort of brochure for people like her to learn how to fit in –people of color, people who don’t have much money, people whose parents never went to college.
The influx of new students has challenged things about college life that Amherst had always taken for granted, like the 10-day Thanksgiving break, for example. Elizabeth Aries says the college used to shut down during break.
Aries: Basically, the students who are still on campus are the ones who can’t afford to go home for that 10-day period.Well, these students are left without dining facilities, who are basically going to have to pay the money, which they don’t have, to go eat out in town for 10 days.
Today, the dining hall stays open during Thanksgiving break.
Aries: And what we’ve come to see as we’ve changed our student body is that there are many things on this campus that we hadn’t thought through completely that were based on assumptions of wealth, but now we had many students here who didn’t have that kind of wealth.
Let’s say you’re coming to campus for the first time, and you don’t have a winter coat, or you don’t have bedding for your dorm room. If your family contribution to tuition is less than $5,000, Amherst’s financial aid office will now give you what they call a “start-up grant”of $400 to get things that more well-off students have money to buy. Two domestic round-trip plane tickets are also built into the financial aid packages of needy students. The college will pay for you to buy clothes for job interviews and for other things wealthy students may take for granted.
[Students at tent party]
It’s the night before graduation, and about 200 people gather underneath a big, white, open-sided tent. There are rows of tables with crisp linens, an open bar, and a dance floor next to a buffet with platters of grilled steak and caprese salads. Uniformed staff serve hors d’oeuvres to well-dressed students and families. Every year at this time, Amherst parents rent out these tents to hold private, catered parties on campus for their graduates. These tent parties are expensive. Some students felt this was a tangible example of a class division: the haves could afford to celebrate their graduates in style, while the have-nots couldn’t. So this year…
Morsy [over P.A.]: Hi, everyone. Thank you all for coming. This is the first-ever, first-generation graduation tent so let’s give a round of applause… [Applause]
That’s Nedia Morsy, the graduating senior from New Jersey. She petitioned the administration to sponsor this tent for the families of first-generation students. Amherst has never paid for a graduation tent party before, but it plans to do it again next year.
[Graduation band playing]
The next morning is graduation, and Amherst’s main quad looks like the United Nations. Parents in colorful caftans and headscarves pull up chairs next to parents wearing seersucker suits and pearls.
[Bryant’s family finding seats]
Bryant family member: Where are we going to sit? You got seats over there? How many?
Roshard Bryant’s family is here. His parents, some extended family, and his older sister and brother drove up from the Bronx and D.C.
[Band playing Pomp and Circumstance.]
As the band switches to Pomp and Circumstance, Roshard’s dad, Roger, gets teary. His tall, handsome son looks regal walking with the rest of the graduates. Roger comes up to me and points out something in the program.
Pekow: What are you looking at?
Roger Bryant: Cum laude. I thought he did not get it, and he’s in the program. When my daughter showed me that, you know I was, I was to tears again. So, I’m just so proud.
Roger says he’s going to frame this program, along with other mementos of Roshard from his childhood.
Roshard is the youngest of nine children, and when the youngest of any family graduates college, it’s a big deal. But for the Bryants, Roshard represents something bigger. No one in the family has ever gone to a place like Amherst before.
Family member 1: See him, Ma? He’s next.
Bryant’s mother: There you go.
Announcer: Roshard Jameel Bryant.
[Family clapping and cheering, “Yeah!”“Roshard! Roshard!” “Go, baby!”]
Bryant’s mother: Yes! So proud of him! God is good.
Family member 2: All the time.
Our story on Amherst was produced by Suzanne Pekow.
You’re listening to “The New Face of College.”I’m Stephen Smith.
Roshard Bryant is leaving Amherst not just with a prestigious degree but with a new network of social and professional contacts. Amherst surveys its students to see how they do after graduation. The college has found that low-income students who got tuition help report the same standard of living after college as their peers who didn’t get aid.
For schools like Amherst, Vassar, and Harvard, bringing in more diverse students is a matter of choice. These elite schools will always have plenty of applicants. For other colleges, it’s a matter of survival. Huge demographic and economic changes in America mean that the pool of available students is changing, and colleges will have to change, too.
Steve Riter: If we didn’t find a way to be welcoming to people who might not have felt so welcomed, we wouldn’t have anybody to be a student.
We visit a public university that’s becoming a top-tier school, made up of students from the Texas border country.
To read more about the changing demographics in American colleges, visit our website at AmericanRadioWorks.org. There, you can download this and other American RadioWorks programs, and you can tell us what you think of our coverage. That’s at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Our program continues in just a moment, from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: You’re listening to “The New Face of College”from American RadioWorks. I’m Stephen Smith.
Philip Goodell: We’re at this relatively high point. You can see the flat desert out there…
Geology professor Philip Goodell is holding court in the place he loves best: the foothills of the Franklin Mountains near El Paso, Texas. He is a weather-beaten 72-year-old. His worn white cap is scrunched down over white hair. Professor Goodell has loved rocks since he was eight years old.
Goodell: There was a railroad by here, and I used to go over there and climb up into the railroad cars. You could get good pyrite and all sorts of azurite. You know, when I went off to college in the East, I knew I wanted to be a geologist.
He went away to college at Yale and got his doctorate at Harvard. He worked for a time in New York City but came back to teach at the University of Texas at El Paso –UTEP – in 1975.
Goodell: The geology is so much better here than Central Park. So [laughs] you know, there just wasn’t the types of projects for me to work that are close to–that there are here.
[Sound of stepping on rocks]
Valeria Guerrero: This one, anything you pick up on, you’re gonna find fossils, little sea shells.
On the trail with Professor Goodell is Valeria Guerrero, one of his protégées.
Guerrero: Yeah, this is just indicating that this area was alive, was full of animals, full of sea shells.
Valeria is 27. She says she was a wild teenager who barely finished high school. She had to take remedial classes at community college. That is where she discovered that she loves geology. So she transferred to UTEP to study with professors like Philip Goodell.
Guerrero: He tells me he sees me as a respectable scientist. He’s expecting me to be a big shot of a geologist out there.
Valeria married young, and she has a son. Her parents had some college, but that was in Mexico. So, navigating the university has been a challenge.
Guerrero: You need a guide. You need a guide to show you where to go and how to study and who to talk to, and that’s Dr. Goodell. He’s the one been guiding me to the right places, to the right people.
Valeria’s specialty is gem stones here in the Franklin Mountains. She hopes to travel the world prospecting for emeralds and sapphires.
A rare thunderstorm chases her and Professor Goodell off the mountain.
[Singing “La Bamba”in car]
They sing in the car as they head back to the geology lab. Valeria is hoping to teach in that lab someday, after she gets a PhD.
The University of Texas at El Paso, UTEP, has something to prove. Most of its students come from the dusty southwestern border of Texas. They are mostly poor, mostly Hispanic. But UTEP wants to prove that those students are an asset, not a liability. Those students are helping transform UTEP into a top-tier research university, and they’re going on to advanced careers in sciences. UTEP says here’s how you do all that: you educate the students you have, not the students you wish you had. Producer Laurie Stern picks up our story.
[Students at bake sale]
Laurie Stern: It’s a hot, sunny Thursday, and a group of pre-med students has set up a table in the shade of a little tree in front of the engineering building. They’re selling cookies and cupcakes to raise money for a trip to a clinic in the Dominican Republic. It’s the sort of thing you might see on any campus. But if you look south from this campus, you see Juarez, Mexico. There’s a clear view of the concrete houses and dirt roads that run up the hillside across the Rio Grande.
Diana Natalicio: This is a region that has huge, untapped potential; a population that historically didn’t have higher education opportunities.
That’s Diana Natalicio, president of UTEP since 1988.
Natalicio: The demographics of the entire United States, certainly the state of Texas, are changing dramatically, and we were at the forefront of that, because we happen to be located where we are.
Eighty percent of the undergraduates here are Hispanic, the majority low-income, 36 percent from families that earn less than $20,000 a year. The old UTEP used to serve a very different population.
[Music from film]
Film announcer: Texas Western College presents a documentary film on its first 52 years of growth and development.
[Music and film continue]
This film about the school’s history was produced in 1966, back when the school was called Texas Western College. It was founded 100 years ago as a school of mining and metallurgy, to help the local mining companies and prospectors.
Film announcer: Texas Western College is determined to successfully meet the challenge of graduating the kind of people who will help keep our country great.
Over the years, the college added programs in nursing, computer engineering, and humanities. In 1971, five years after the film was made, Diana Natalicio became a professor of Portuguese at what had come to be called the University of Texas at El Paso.
Natalicio: The university was much more an island. I wouldn’t call it an ivory tower, maybe an adobe tower, somewhat disconnected from the surrounding community. Most of the students came from far West Texas, and the majority from El Paso, but they didn’t really reflect the changing demographic of this region, which was becoming increasingly Latino.
The school’s slogan had been “Harvard on the Border,”but when Natalicio became president in 1988, she wanted to drop the pretension. She said the college should be more accessible to low-income, first-generation students. After all, she’d been one herself. She knew there was talent in the growing Hispanic community. She argued it was in UTEP’s interest to harness that talent. Steve Riter is Vice President for Information Resources and Planning.
Steve Riter:We needed to focus our program on serving that market, and that market was–I hate to talk about it in business marketing terms, but–that market was only going to grow. And if we didn’t find a way to be welcoming, we wouldn’t have anybody to be a student.
Student 1: Sensitize.
Instructor: It’s okay, we all know that word in Spanish.
Tania Moreno: I can’t say it!
A dozen or so students are crowded into a tiny office next to the psychobiology lab. Tania Moreno is practicing a presentation on neurotransmitters. Tania spoke only Spanish until she was 14, so she needs help with pronunciation.
Student 2: Sensitization.
Moreno: Synthesized. There you go.
[Applause and laughter]
In addition to the language challenge, Tania faced a financial one. Her first two years at UTEP, Tania worked full time in an office downtown.
Moreno: At first, it was a little hard because I had to work and go to college to pay for college.
Last year, she was able to leave that job when she was offered one in the research lab. Putting undergraduates in laboratories is a key part of the UTEP plan. Here’s Associate Provost Donna Ekal:
Donna Ekal: The research that our undergraduates students get to do is beneficial in many ways. One, it’s a job. They get paid for that, and so it increases the number of jobs available. But two, it gives them an opportunity to do something that they haven’t been exposed to before and really make that connection.
Moreno: Right now, I’m applying for what is called “post-bac program.” It’s a one-year program that prepares you for a PhD.
Tania says her mom was a housewife; her dad was a truck driver. Neither graduated from high school. They wanted Tania to go to college. They didn’t know what she should study, just that a degree would improve her chances in life. They’re thrilled she has become a scholar. Tania wants to get her PhD at the University of Michigan.
If she’s accepted, she’ll be following the path of her mentor, the professor who runs this lab, Eddie Castañeda. Michigan is where he got his doctorate. Eddie Castañeda grew up in El Paso, and went to UTEP in the early ‘70s.
Eddie Castañeda:This was my campus. I used to come here with a cousin of mine when I was probably around eight or nine years old and just play in the arroyos while my cousin was in class. This used to be the biology and chemistry building, and I remember coming in here, and they had a display of bats pinned on to a board. There were things going on here that were exciting. Can you imagine a collection of bats, those scary things, to a kid? And just seeing older people studying.
Professor Castañeda was the first in his family to go to college. He got his master’s degree here too, and those were the days when Hispanics were still a minority on campus.
Castañeda:I didn’t think I was going to get into graduate school, even with a master’s degree, so I said, “You know what? I’m just going to apply to schools that I think would be great to get in. There’s no chance, but I may as well.” And I applied to six schools only. That’s all I could afford. And I got accepted to all six of them.
Now there’s no better demonstration than that to indicate something called implicit bias and the messages that tell us we’re not good enough. Somebody taught me something, and I bought it, and it wasn’t true, and so I really have a dedication to making that point to students.
[Sounds from Castañeda’s classroom]
Castañeda: What’s the function of the limbic system?
[Student mumbles “emotions”]
Castañeda: Emotions. Also learning and memory, especially that kind of learning that has that emotional quality to it, ok? It helps us stay alive.
Professor Castañeda’s psychobiology class meets Wednesday evenings to accommodate students with jobs. About 40 students, many of them long past their 20s, take notes as he zooms through a PowerPoint about the anatomy of the brain.
Castañeda: What’s the function of the basal ganglia? One word?
Castañeda: Motor, very good.
Evening classes like this are another way UTEP keeps campus accessible. Gary Edens is Vice President for Student Affairs.
Gary Edens: And if you’re going to open your doors and be an access institution, it’s not about just, “Come, and we’ll take your tuition money”—no. It’s about, “Come, and we’re going to support you to graduation.” That’s an ethical responsibility that we have.
To meet that responsibility, UTEP uses a sophisticated data center to figure out precise ways to support students. For example, data show that failing a class in the first semester is an early warning sign that a student will have trouble graduating.
Edens: So we’re trying to find out very early in a student’s first semester where they’re having difficulty, so that we can then intervene. Is it a fiscal, financial issue? Do we provide them some financial assistance? Is it a tutoring need? Are they just not understanding the topic of conversation? Is it a transportation need? And we find students who miss class because they’re taking the bus, and it takes then an hour and a half to get here, and how can we help them with those areas? And so, you know, having that information is the first thing.
The school keeps track of how students are doing before they even enroll at UTEP, starting in grade school. It’s part of a larger effort that includes the school districts and the community college.
Edens: We’re isolated. We’re a closed community. And so it wasn’t about pointing fingers anymore, where the college points fingers at the schools and says, “Well, you’re not preparing the students the way you need to do,” and the school’s pointing fingers at us, saying, “Well, the teachers that are teaching at our school come from your university, so it’s your fault.” It’s sort of like, you can keep pointing fingers, or you can fix the problem and realize that we’re all in this together.
UTEP president Natalicio meets quarterly with the head of the community college and superintendents of El Paso’s K-12 school districts. The idea is to make sure students are ready for college before they get to UTEP.
Edens: We looked at data, and we knew that if they didn’t pass Algebra 1, they were most likely not going to proceed on to a university setting.
So, the school districts beefed up Algebra 1 and required every high school student to take it.
President Natalicio says what UTEP is doing regionally can be replicated at other public colleges and universities. She says it’s up to state schools to close the gap in educational options between haves and have-nots. More people in the top income tiers are going to college, but degree completion in the bottom tier has stayed stubbornly low.
Natalicio: Shame on us, because talent and wealth are not correlated. They’re not. Talent crosses all boundaries, and it is appalling to think that there would be that big a gap, and that gap has remained — has grown — over the past 40 years.
Her mission to make UTEP both accessible and excellent seems to be working. During her tenure, it has gone from offering one PhD –in geology –to offering 20, in subjects like engineering, psychology, educational leadership, and a new one in nursing. The school’s data show that that 94 percent of its recent graduates are employed full time, and 43 percent had enrolled in graduate school since earning a degree. Every year it raises more money in research grants, and that helps it attract top-shelf faculty.
Washington Monthly ranked UTEP in the top 10 national universities, along with Harvard and Stanford.
Perhaps most telling is that students who could go elsewhere choose to go to UTEP –students with top grades and test scores.
[Leanna Rivera handing back papers with Professor Castañeda]
Leanna Rivera is handing back papers she’s graded. She’s Professor Eddie Castañeda’s teaching assistant. When we talked last spring, Leanna was 17 years old, grading papers written by students twice her age.
Leanna Rivera: I am currently a sophomore by credits but a freshman by year. I’m majoring in biochemistry with a minor in biomedical engineering. I’m a teaching assistant for two different classes.
Leanna started working with Dr. Castañeda on a science project when she was in eighth grade. Her grandmother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Leanna wanted to investigate whether caffeine could help. In ninth grade, the project landed her a fourth place prize in Intel’s international science fair.
Leanna could have gone to college anywhere. She had full scholarship offers from Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, and UT Austin, among others.
Rivera: I thought, “Well, you know what? Like, if I’m going to be away from my family for four years, then I don’t think it’s worth it. I only live this life once, and then I’m going to not see my sister grow up?”
Leanna says UTEP is a good-enough school. More importantly, she’s comfortable here.
Rivera: When I would visit other colleges, like Michigan and a lot of other colleges, I would only see—I never really saw that many Hispanic people. I’d see mostly, like, white or, you know, other cultures. And I couldn’t relate to anyone else. So but when I come here, I see everyone’s the same as I am, and so I’m so happy, like, I don’t feel out of place at all. I feel like I can connect with everyone here.
Leanna is prepared to leave for a while. She wants to join the Peace Corps and go to medical school. But then she wants to come back to UTEP to teach and do research. Maybe she and Valeria Guerrero will be colleagues then. Valeria’s the geology student who wants to prospect for emeralds and then come back to UTEP to teach.
[Video in Spanish]
It’s the end of the school year, and Valeria has just brought an envelope over to her dad’s place, a surprise. She asked her stepmom to shoot a cell phone video of his reaction.
Valeria Guerrero: Es una decisión que va a afectar a todos.
I have a decision that affects all of us, she says.
Guerrero’s father: Haber!
“Let’s have it!”says her dad.
Open it, she says. Open it!
Guerrero’s father: …embarazada.
“I know, you’re pregnant,”says her dad.
He opens the outer envelope. Her stepmom is in on the joke.
Guerrero’s stepmother: Un recibo…
She says it’s a bill. Valeria’s dad’s eyes widen as he reads the note. Then they tear up.
Guerrero’s father: Te graduaste.
Guerrero:[Crying] Me graduo en Mayo.
“You graduated,”he says. She corrects him, “I graduate in May.”She tells him this is their invitation to come to the ceremony.
In the video, her dad swats her with the envelope playfully. And then they hug, for a long time.
Later, Valeria showed the video to her mentor, Professor Phillip Goodell. She’s going to keep working with him, even though she’s graduated. She’s going on for a master’s degree at UTEP.
Guerrero: Here I am, telling them, “I could do it. I did it, and here you go, your invitation.”
Goodell: Do they know you’re accepted in the Master’s program?
Guerrero: They are now too, and for them, they still don’t believe it.
She says her parents didn’t think she’d finish college so soon –maybe not even at all.
Guerrero: I feel proud of myself because I showed them otherwise. [Choking up] And I showed them that I could do it and that’s a message for them and for the rest of the people who said I couldn’t do it. It’s the biggest pride and accomplishment I felt. It’s a—a—I don’t know how to say it in English, I forgot my English. Un triunfo. A big —
Guerrero: Triumph, yeah.
Smith: Our story on UTEP was produced by Laurie Stern.
Administrators at UTEP say they hope they’ll serve as a model, demonstrating that it is possible to get more low-income, first-generation people through college.
Having more people from a variety of backgrounds earning college degrees is urgent. It’s estimated the United States will need at least 20 million more college-educated workers by the year 2025. That number can’t be reached if colleges only teach the dwindling number of so-called traditional students.
It may be time to retire the expression “traditional college student.”Most students who attend college today are nontraditional in at least one way. They’re older, or they’re on their own financially, or they have children, or they didn’t finish high school.
The majority of college students today are white, but that’s not going to last. It can’t last if the United States hopes to fill the jobs of the future. By the year 2060, only 35 percent of the college-age population in the US will be white. The single largest college-age group in the country will be Hispanic people. Colleges and universities will have to continue to adapt to a new group of students, if they hope to have any students at all.
You’ve been listening to “The New Face of College.”
It was produced by Samara Freemark, Suzanne Pekow, Laurie Stern, and Catherine Winter, and it was mixed by Craig Thorson. The web producer is Andy Kruse. The American RadioWorks team includes Emily Hanford, Dylan Peers McCoy, Minna Zhou, Peter Clowney, Ellen Guettler, and me, Stephen Smith.
We have more about the changing demographics at American colleges on our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. We’d love to hear what you think of this program. You can find our contact information on our website. And while you’re there, you can check out more than a dozen of our other documentaries about education and sign up for our weekly education podcast. That’s AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can also find us on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and on Twitter at AMRadioWorks.
Support for this program comes from Lumina Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This is APM, American Public Media.