Diversity remains ongoing struggle

Aug. 12, 2010, 3:36 a.m.
Diversity remains ongoing struggle
The full economic picture of Stanford's undergraduate population is, given available data, impossible to determine. There are indicators that Stanford's student body is less diverse in geographic and socioeconomic background than in other common measures of diversity, such as race and ethnicity (JING RAN/The Stanford Daily)

The composite picture of socioeconomic diversity at Stanford is a patchwork, both in the data available and the efforts made to achieve it.

The first class of students at Stanford, in 1891, famously required no tuition. Among the ranks of the Farm’s “pioneer class” was a young man born in an Iowa village, the son of a blacksmith and a minister, who at the time of his admission was orphaned and living in Oregon.

Herbert Hoover’s enrollment at Stanford has served for more than a century as the University’s archetypal story of success and meritocratic inclusion. Ensuring a diversity of class and background at Stanford, however, has only grown more complicated since the days of Leland Stanford’s recruiting trips across the American West.

Competition is extremely high to enter Stanford, with an admit rate of 7.2 percent. And those who make it in are, as a group, financially better off than the rest of the American population. According to Director of Financial Aid Karen Cooper, the median family income at Stanford is approximately $125,000; by contrast, the median family income in the United States in 2008, the last year for which data are available, is $61,521.

Beyond establishing a rough baseline, however, determining the actual economic diversity of Stanford’s students becomes a far more complex question.

Stanford’s financial aid office only has reliable information for the half of the student population it provides aid to, and the Office of Undergraduate Admission does not assess financial details during its need-blind admission process. No University office looks at the total economic composition of the incoming freshman class, nor does any office actually carry out demographic breakdowns by levels of income.

At the lowest levels of income, 14 percent of the undergraduate population received Pell Grants for the 2008-09 academic year, typically rewarded to families that make under $40,000 a year.

More broadly, 46 percent of Stanford students receive need-based scholarships. While only approximately 50 percent of the Stanford undergraduate population receives need-based financial aid, an additional group of slightly over 30 percent receives some other form of assistance, such as outside or athletic scholarships, while 20 percent attend Stanford without any aid at all.

Of those families receiving need-based aid, only about 15 to 20 percent earn more than $150,000 a year, according to Cooper, and roughly 60 percent make less than $100,000.

“What I have heard students say, both white and black, is that, ‘I didn’t know I was low income until I came to Stanford,” said Sally Dickson, associate vice provost and dean of educational resource centers.

While the Office of Undergraduate Admission strives to ensure the representation of minority racial and ethnic groups in each class, Stanford does not obtain a complete picture of a student’s family income until the student applies for financial aid. As a result, the process of seeking economic diversity is not what Cooper would call an exact science.

“You really can’t make any assumptions on someone’s income based on race or ethnicity or even where they come from,” Cooper said.

Stanford’s administration emphasizes the diversity of background and life experience in its student body, but specific data are not made public by the Office of Undergraduate Admission beyond broad indicators, such as the percent of students admitted from California and the number of states and countries represented.

Still, across the University, steps are being made toward helping students feel more included on campus. Dickson said the most pressing priority for her office is meeting the needs of first-generation college students, who make up an “increasing number” of incoming students.

Dickson is seeking to fill a full-time staff position dedicated to addressing that community, a post that was only quarter-time position during the 2009-10 academic year. Her office also sends special invitations to students who are first generation or of “low income”—from a household under $100,000—during New Student Orientation.

“I think what is important is that our overall climate here at Stanford is welcoming and greeting, and that all students feel they are a contributor to the life of the campus,” Dickson said.

“I do think that for students who come from under-resourced high schools, or areas that are low income, their adjustment and transition may be different,” she added.

Then there are incoming freshmen from rural areas or states, a relatively small yet substantial segment of the student body. While they don’t have a dedicated community center and aren’t greeted as a group during New Student Orientation, the challenges they can face at Stanford are often similar.

Jon Christensen ‘81, the executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, said students from rural areas have to navigate ingrained attitudes or prejudices toward their background.

“There’s a part of the whole modern project and the Western intellectual tradition, that in some ways positions itself toward urban life and away from rural experience,” Christensen said.

“There are students who come from rural America who feel that they still study under that burden, and that their experience is not as valid and that it is not recognized,” he added.

Bea Gordon ’10, who majored in English and environmental history and grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, also said relating to her classmates could be a challenge.

“You can’t really talk about driving a truck when you were seven when you’re with a bunch of people,” she said.

But both Gordon and Christensen said the classroom could provide a means for students to feel more comfortable, and that through academic study rural students could connect their experience with higher education to their life before Stanford.

“For me that was really nice, because I got to learn more about my home,” Gordon said.

She emphasized that to view rural students as one group would be to oversimplify their experience—a problem that Christensen points to as an additional challenge in reaching out to students with diverse backgrounds.

“Everyone has a different rural background,” Gordon said. “I’m not really going to be sympathetic with someone who grew up on a corn farm in Nebraska.”

Christensen, who attended Stanford in the late 1970s, was upbeat in his assessment of the culture of inclusion on campus.

“I think there is more room for encouraging and understanding and respecting rural experience,” he said. “There is still some of that bias, but I think there is more understanding now, and that students feel more comfortable and confident with bringing that experience here to Stanford.”

In assessing diversity at Stanford, one thing is clear: the picture is murky, and in upcoming years it won’t become any more easier for Stanford to match its practices to its stated commitments.

“The world is becoming more diverse, as we know, as well as the realization that there are students with multiple identities,” Dickson said.

But the role of diversity in providing a crucial aspect of education at Stanford seems to be an area of broad agreement—so long as the University can allow a shared place at the table for what Christensen calls the “richer conversation” provided by someone with a distinct background.

“It’s about making space for that kind of experience,” Christensen said.

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