The Challenge of Being Poor at America’s Richest Colleges

I recently read an article on Forbes that really pulled on my heart strings. It was about society’s and policy’s continual focus on making elite higher education more accessible to low income students, but the gap that exists between receiving an acceptance letter and the next 4 years on campus. Overall, the challenge for low-income students does not end with admittance to a prestigious university, and it can be argued that unfortunately it seems really only begin at that point.

When we think of collegiate rights of passage, typically the first things that come to mind involve dining hall meals, all nighters and living in a dorm. However, for students who are financially privileged, collegiate rights of passage often also include spring break excursions to exotic locations, buying the $250 textbook, and having the ability to purchase an expensive and polished looking suit for a last minute job interview or career fair. To illustrate the economic disparities between students at prestigious institutions, as the Forbes article points out “At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.”

Overall, I find this data to be troubling, as our elite institutions are not nearly as diverse as we would like to think. I also cannot help but wonder of the role that technology can play in this issue – for both leveling the playing field and resources available for students of less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, and exacerbating the differences the experiences they have.

Is there such a thing as technological inequality on our college campuses?

Technological inequality is having the refurbished tablet PC or even being without a laptop, when your classmates are all sporting trendy MacBook Pros, retailing at over $1,000. Technological inequality is not being able to check your email throughout the day on the smartphone that you cannot afford, and missing that message about last minute extended office hours. Technological inequality is missing precious moments of valuable study time, because you do not have the ability to download the latest flashcard mobile app to study your Spanish vocab on the go.

I just wanted to create this post to raise awareness about the role that technology can play in perpetuating inequality on campus. I am aware that some schools have laptop loan programs, but the real problem is more systemic and deeper than that. Technology is nearly synonymous with innovation, and those of us in higher education, whether it is administration, student life, teaching, or tech, can use that innovative spark to find a solution for these issues.

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The MOOC Momentum

An interesting technology and higher education related trend I have been following has been the development and popularity of MOOCs.  The acronym MOOC stands for “massive open online course” – and according to some supporters, MOOCs are revolutionizing the accessibility of higher education. There has definitely been a lot of hype surrounding MOOCs in the past year. Such massive online courses not only make education accessible to anyone with an internet connection and computer, but they are usually offered free of charge. Even more inciting, many well known universities participate, including prestigious institutions such as M.I.T, Stanford, Harvard, and UPenn. For more specific information about MOOCs and the courses/universities offered, visit Coursera, the provider platform that most universities have partnered with to deliver the content.

Personally, I am a little skeptical about MOOCs. I certainly agree that they are a great educational resource and I love their free and low-cost nature. However, I think it is a little too early to praise MOOCs for being an educational equalizer and opening up access to prestigious universities. I feel this way mostly because I know that no employer would acknowledge a resume full of open-access and free MOOC courses from Stanford University as being close to the equivalent of a Stanford degree. So how exactly are MOOCs truly bringing the value and professional prestige of a traditional degree? The more I read, the more I begin to decide that they do not.

According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a recent study undertaken by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the majority of people using MOOCs are already highly educated and career minded. The findings of the study are also particularly important, because it is the first research on MOOCs that has been completed by those that are not from the direct MOOC provider platform (ex: Coursera). In addition, the finding from UPenn go directly against the so-called truism that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to those who would have been unable to take advantage of them otherwise.

In the UPenn study, out of survey results based on answers from nearly 35,000 students worldwide who were enrolled and participating in 24 of Coursera’s offered MOOCs, about 80% had a 2 or 4 year degree, and about 44% had some graduate education. Overall, the research concluded that 80% of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well-educated 6% of the population. These results held true even across user data from developing countries, with 80% of developing-world students enrolled in MOOCs already holding college degrees. Check out the complete paper here.

Sample infographic of UPenn research results:

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I am curious to hear your opinions on MOOCs and educational access, especially if you happen to have any of your own direct experience in taking them. According to Coursera in light of the UPenn research study, the company is well aware of their demographic trends and is working on projects to help reach more potential students in need. If anything can be learned, I would say it is that education unfortunately does not easily become boarder-less, gender blind, race blind, class blind, or bank account blind, even with the increased access that technology brings.