No plan to cut failing diversity program at UW-Madison

A program intended to promote diversity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is backfiring, while a very different program at Vassar College is attracting diversity without even trying.

According to The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, an independent study of the UW program released Thursday reveals that participants make up only a small percentage of each freshman class, despite the program’s goal to increase diversity among the UW-Madison student body.

Compounding the situation, The Journal Times adds that the study also concluded that participants actually graduate at lower rates than other low-income and minority students at the university.

The Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Experience ( PEOPLE) is described as “a pre-college pipeline for students of color and low-income students, most of whom are the first in their families to potentially attend college,” and seeks to create long-term academic and social support for such students, offering tutoring, a summer living experience on campus, and after-school programs, among other opportunities.

According to the new evaluation, however, only slightly more than half of all PEOPLE participants end up enrolling at UW, and among those that do, fewer than one-third graduate within four years and just 66 percent receive their degrees within six years, both of which figures are significantly lower than the university-wide average for “comparable groups of students.”

Despite the discouraging report, Provost for Diversity and Climate Patrick Sims declared that UW has no plans to cut the program, though the university does intend to implement changes in coming years, and will also seek outside funding from nonprofit organizations, and possibly the federal government, to help defer the program’s $4 million annual price tag.

Going forward, the report suggests focusing the program on low family income rather than academic merit during the admissions process, pointing out that fewer than 61 percent of participating high school students currently complete the program.

Incidentally, Vassar College has pursued just such an approach, and with much more encouraging results, according to the WGBH News Higher Education Blog.

In 2007, Vassar began to actively recruit more low-income students by devoting a portion of its $900 million endowment to increased financial aid for poor students, with supplementary funding diverted from sports maintenance, dining food options, and even campus lawn care.

In the intervening years, Vassar’s financial commitment has grown from $30 million to $60 million, while during the same period the population of students from low-income families increased from 11 percent to 25 percent. And the low-income students reportedly graduate at the same rate as their more economically advantaged peers.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, told WGBH that colleges should focus on socioeconomic status rather than race and ethnicity in college admissions because racial diversity and low-income status are related, a position with which Vassar President Cappy Hill agrees.

“At the selective colleges that have big endowments, we see the least amount of socioeconomic diversity,” Kahlenberg pointed out. “As long as you are really fair about providing a leg up to disadvantaged students, the research is very clear that we can replicate current levels of racial and ethnic diversity in a way that’s gonna help the students who, all along, we should have been providing support for.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @jelawrence72