“My extracurricular involvement on campus largely centers around educational equity issues,” I told the faculty members in the Baxter-Davidson room during my interview for a program called Education Scholars. This neat little phrase, “educational equity issues,” felt like an appropriate heading under which to categorize the things I’m involved with at Davidson. And in a way, it’s accurate. I’m part of the team for Dinner at Davidson, the student-driven fundraiser for the Davidson Trust, and a student board member for E2D, a grassroots attempt to eliminate the digital divide by providing low-cost computers and internet access to local families. As I consider how I’ll take my Education Scholar experience back to Davidson, these initiatives appear to tie in seamlessly with the work I’ve done this summer. However, our in-depth analysis of the state of public education has shown me how complicated the notion of educational equity really is, and I’m forced to consider both the possibilities and the limitations of these two projects in the wider educational ecosystem.
Dinner at Davidson has been my primary extracurricular activity at Davidson, and I’m immensely proud of the work our team did this past year to raise $70,000 towards need-based financial aid. As some of our peer institutions are rethinking their need-blind admissions policies, Davidson’s commitment to access is admirable, and I love that Dinner at Davidson provides a platform for students to not only help contribute to that effort, but also to raise awareness for the importance of socioeconomic diversity on our campus. However, I can’t help but notice that as a tool to fight educational inequity, the Davidson Trust is extremely limited. The Trust’s most obvious limitation is its reliance on formulas and industry standards that determine how much a family can afford to pay for college. I’ve heard enough stories about students who are unable to return to Davidson due to cost to know that these formulas are not foolproof. But there is a larger weakness to our need-based financial aid program that prevents it from truly serving as an educational equilizer. The fact is, to even be accepted to Davidson, students have to have had a variety of resources and a better-than-average education. Institutions like Davidson largely reinforce inequities that begin at a lower level, allowing students who have already had private or unusually elite public educations to continue to access the largest share of resources.
I also work on the Eliminate Digital Divides project, which is focused on those students who have not had the resources to be competitive for admissions at a place like Davidson. E2D (recently renamed from E3D, as the reach has expanded beyond Davidson) aims to bridge the digital divide, or the lack of access to computers or other “smart” technology, that prevents students from low-income families from achieving at the same level as their peers. For those of us who have always had access to relatively modern technology at home, it’s easy to take for granted how many school assignments depend on the ability to access the internet from home. That said, the issue is not as simple as merely putting a computer in a family’s hands and giving a brief tutorial. The E2D team is working extremely hard on figuring out how to create a tech support and training system that is sustainable on the Davidson level, and the question remains how that will translate when the project moves to other communities. And while closing the digital divide has the potential to make a large impact on the lives of those families, it won’t bridge the gaps between students at higher and lower achieving schools, nor will it equalize other factors that prevent low-income students from being successful in school and beyond.
Both of these initiatives are worthwhile, and I’ll continue to throw myself behind each of them them. That said, each one is limited if it focuses too much on its own narrow mission. Both organizations need to tap into a larger conversation about education reform in order to be successful. For Dinner at Davidson, that means forming partnerships with other campus groups who focus on diversity in every sense of the world, encouraging open conversations about the limitations of the Davidson Trust, and tapping into the larger conversation about the prohibitive cost of college across the country. For E2D, that means paying attention to larger trends in education technology, learning from peer initiatives, and pursuing additional opportunities to train students in digital and media literacy skills. Most importantly, the leaders of these projects need to recognize that they may need to broaden or adapt beyond their limited missions in order to maximize their impact.
I’m as passionate about educational equity today as I was the day I interviewed for this program, but I now recognize that the issue is deeper and more nuanced than I could have imagined. I remain optimistic, however, that if the leaders of initiatives like Dinner at Davidson and E2D remain humble about their limited scope and willing to adapt tactics when necessary, even these limited projects can have an immense impact.