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Rhetoric and Faculty Bias against Underprivileged Students

January 31, 2009

There seems to be an unintended bias against underprivileged students at my university as a result of a rhetorical grouping. Here’s how it works.

One the one hand, my university has a program that admits students to the college who are inadquately prepared. Their high school grades or SAT scores are below the minimum for our admissions standards, but since they can afford to pay tuition they’re admitted on a provisional basis. Sometimes these students are fully capable of performing well at the college level and merely need a chance and appropriate prodding. However, often these students may have a very low IQ—and consequently may not perform well at the college level no matter how hard they try.

Needless to say, this program is frustrating to faculty. Many of these students are relatively wealthy, privileged, white students who simply don’t belong in our classes or can’t perform in our classes.

On the other hand, the college has a program for underprivileged, minority students coming from urban settings. These students may be extremely bright, but, due to their lack of adequate educational support through high school, may not be prepared to perform well at the college level. The students who qualify for this program are admitted on a provisional basis, like the other group, and are offered scholarships to defray the cost of college. This program, clearly, is designed to foster upward mobility for minorities.

These students need extra help to do well in one’s class, but I’ve found that the extra investment of time in these students pays off. They’re often very bright and only need a little help to perform at the same level as their more privileged peers.

Despite the key differences, some faculty rhetorically group the students from these two programs together on the basis of the fact that both groups are “underprepared” for college.

I prefer not to group both under the category of “underprepared,” but instead try to use the following chains of associations:

Probably Privileged / Underprivileged

Probably Low IQ / Probably High IQ

Possibly Lazy Worker / Probably Hard Worker

Probably Dorm Resident / Probably Commutes from City

Underprepared / Underprepared

The next to last associations are important, as those who commute from urban settings are bound by a greater number of constraints than the on-campus residents. In addition, those who commute from an urban setting are less likely to have access to state-of-the-art computers and online resources.

If we used this chain of associations, the “underprepared” label turns out to be the least important marker of the two groups.

So, the next time I hear a faculty member complain about those “underprepared” students in her class, I’m going to try to ask “which ones?” and invite her to distinguish between the two.

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