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Colleges Can Recruit Diverse Classes By Re-imagining Themselves 

Recently, data journalists at the New York Times explored a challenging question for higher education: How can colleges continue to recruit diverse student bodies when the Supreme Court says they can’t use racial preferences?

They examined four different statistical models in which they imagined colleges taking applicant poverty into account, taking the relative wealth and poverty of the high school students into account, and trying to find “outlier students” who come from impoverished backgrounds but outperform other students from those backgrounds.

Each approach made some improvements, but none were universally successful. They were each a set of imperfect trade-offs, and most of them, we would like to suggest, miss the big picture. That’s because each scenario they explored kept the basic assumption that the purpose of college admissions departments isn’t really to admit students, but to recruit select students.  That is: an admissions department is doing its job if it keeps out a lot more students than it lets in.

That approach is what’s keeping colleges today from having truly diverse student bodies. 

We can do it differently.

California’s supreme court struck down racial preferences in public universities in 1996, and the university system has struggled to meet its diversity goals since – but has had increasing success the more it moved away from the notion that the purpose of admissions departments is to be selective.

Say Yes To Students

By 2018, California made its ultimate experiment in opening college admissions by founding Calbright College: a free, statewide, online, community college district that is open to everyone but designed to reach the populations most often excluded from traditional higher education.

Calbright’s premise is simple: We’re designed to reach the populations we want to work with. In our case, “stranded workers” in California – adults who want to improve their careers but don’t have access to the college education needed to do it. All our programs and operations are created specifically to meet their needs. 

Then we make those programs accessible to them. Something they don’t just want to do, but that fits with their lives so they can do it..

Then we accept every Californian who applies. 

If you are a California resident, 18 or older, with a high school diploma or equivalent, you can get in. There’s no lengthy admissions process, no waiting to see if you’re accepted, no effort to prove you “deserve” an education, there’s minimal paperwork, and currently no fees at all.

When Everyone Has Access, Diverse Populations Come

It turns out that when you create programs that fit people’s needs, make those programs accessible, and then accept the people who apply, you achieve a diverse population of students.

Most reports find that a majority of college students are white and under 25 years old, even online. But at Calbright, over 70% of students identify as BIPOC, and nearly 90% of students are at least 25 years old, with 41% over 40. Our student body is almost evenly split between men and women, and a third of our students are parents.

None of that requires affirmative action, or racial preferences. What it takes is getting past the idea that college educations are elite level rewards for merit, and instead treating a college education like something everyone should have access to. Everybody “deserves” access to college.

The New York Times data reporters know that at some level: Their fourth scenario involved “casting a wider net” and expanding their applicant pool – and it was the most successful for (hypothetically) recruiting more diverse classes. But even then, they were trying to limit access, and were intentionally keeping far more people out than they were welcoming in.

Calbright’s results prove that this is the wrong approach: If you want to have more diverse classes of students, you have to focus on getting more students in. Creating programs that meet their needs and then making sure they can access them.

It’s reimagining college.

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