Fostering Economic Diversity Before College

After the New York Times released its ranking of top colleges based on efforts to promote economic diversity, the country began to talk in volumes about why economic diversity is still important, and why colleges should be looking toward it. Universities are absolutely a tool for creating class mobility, but the idea of economic diversity in schools should start before students reach the arguably already privileged halls of a college campus.

Louisville, KY figured that out a long time ago, and their income-based integration system serves as a model for what promoting economic diversity starting from the beginning can do.

The Louisville Example

Louisville’s system started as a desegregation effort, and remains such to this day. The city adopted a bold measure that busses urban and suburban students across the lengths of Jefferson County, KY to balance out the racial and economic compositions of the local schools. Though the area contains census tracts wherein more than half the population lives in poverty, the city isn’t struggling to support underperforming inner-city schools.

Met initially with vocal protest, the Louisville system eventually won residents over as fears regarding confrontation with different races and economic classes failed to be realized, and today it largely embraced and fought for, even with some of its inconveniences.

What’s truly astounding about the desegregation efforts, though, isn’t the distribution of the school children, themselves, it’s what they get from being in integrated schools. Multiple languages are a common occurrence in Louisville classrooms, and in 2011 more than half of the District’s fourth grade students scored at or above a proficient level in math. It’s well documented that as poverty levels in school increase, students’ academic performance decreases. The Louisville model helps prevent that by design.

It’s not a perfect model, and even in the modern age it’s been met with some resistance, even at the governmental level. The facts support, though, that a socioeconomically integrated primary school system creates adventitious learning environments for students that would otherwise be segregated based on economic class structure.

Why Starting Early Matters

So why is it so important to start addressing economic diversity in schools early on? Because low-income students that have the opportunity to attend schools that aren’t inherently low income are statistically more likely to be ahead of their peers stuck in economically segregated schools.

Dr. Myron Orfield published an astounding comparison between Detroit and Louisville, two cities of similar size and composition with the former fighting against desegregation and the latter pushing for it. It really comes down to this, though.

Without an effort to address the matter early on, schools will inherently realign themselves based on class lines. This, in many cases, prevents those students who might benefit from greater economic diversity in college from even getting to college, as they were never provided with the resources or educational training to get them there.

So yes, economic diversity in colleges is important, but that’s also putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Economic diversity in universities will take hold much better if it’s addressed before the students ever have to start applying for college. Create opportunity in the form of diversity early on, and it won’t have to be a matter for debate later down the road.