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A call for equality in higher education

Lance Gallop | Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Elitism, and the many flavors of discrimination implicit in the word, has long been a fixture of American higher education. In another time and another state of mind it took the form of the inequity of men over women, or Caucasians over racial and ethnic minorities, or Christians over non-Christians. Today, although none of these past forms are completely dead, the discrimination found within higher education is most often expressed by the elitism of wealth (especially at Notre Dame and other upper-echelon schools), by intellectual elitism and by the elitism of youth.

All of these forms of bias are reprehensible under scrutiny. However, it is the last of these – the elitism of youth – that I wish to specifically address, because of all of these forms of discrimination, it is the most commonly ignored and quite possibly the most preventable.

In order to get a handle on the nature of the elitism of youth, consider the connotations implicitly in the phrase “college-aged.” Typically the term is used to refer to young men and women between the ages of 18 and 22 inclusive, whether they actually attend college as undergraduates or not. In reality, however, there is no such thing as a college-aged population, because there is no hard upper bound on the age at which a person can (or should) begin to attend college, nor on the age at which he or she can complete it (and, for that matter, there is no hard lower bound). Even if one were to attempt to establish the usage as a statistical average using attendance figures, the range would need to be stretched considerably to accommodate the mean. In fact, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, those outside of the classic range now constitute the majority of all students.

To use the terminology “college-aged” is to employ an increasingly invalid stereotype. Yet the usage remains, and this outdated and narrow understanding of what constituted a college population is still the basis for many of the strategic and academic decisions made on campuses across the nation. As a result, many of the country’s top schools, including Notre Dame, still cater predominantly to this single population to the near exclusion of all others.

This is ironic, because the so-called nontraditional student (as members of this population are rather crudely labeled) is a much more iconic embodiment of the “American dream” and the egalitarian principles of the Enlightenment than the stereotypical college student. Nontraditional students must rise to meet and surpass far more forms of adversity than their younger counterparts. Many hold full-time jobs during their college attendance, and very few have parents willing (or able) to share this burden with them. Many are married or have children of their own. All can look forward to reduced opportunities for federal student aid and campus-based scholarships.

All nontraditional students deserve the educations they are seeking, and all deserve better treatment as they seek them

America’s best universities are not well equipped to assist nontraditional students with their burdens, and even less equipped to incorporate their unique contributions into the social and cultural fabric of their residentially-oriented campuses. Yet if more schools accepted nontraditional students as a desirable component of their cultural landscapes, they would find that once this most difficult barrier has been crossed, accommodating the needs of nontraditional students is neither very complex nor prohibitively expensive in proportion to the social benefits.

Above all, nontraditional students need flexibility. Much of this can be accommodated through careful scheduling and by offering courses during the evening and over the weekend. Flexibility can also be incorporated into a campus’ layout by giving preference to family and apartment-style dwellings, both in the surrounding community and on campus, by providing public transportation to and from the local community and by locating free and low-cost child care facilities throughout the grounds.

Flexibility can also be provided by exploring alternate forms of education. Some schools offer inverted majors, where an individual can enroll with proven background experience in a field (say computer science) which the university certifies and complements by providing a liberal arts foundation. Other schools are increasingly exploring and refining online and distance learning courses, which (if carefully executed) can provide an extremely valuable resource for nontraditional students.

Universities need to make certain that nontraditional students feel just as wanted on their campuses as their traditional students. They need to make certain there are many opportunities for meaningful interaction between both student populations and between nontraditional students and faculty members. The potential benefits of this integration are significant, and there is no justifiable reason for excluding valuable members of a campus community – explicitly or in practice – simply because of age, employment or family needs.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer