Tony Frank: On perception vs. reality

When a student is academically prepared for college but has no family history with higher education, they can find lots of reasons to believe that pursuing a college degree isn’t for them. Sometimes that’s cost – both perception and because they don’t know how much financial aid is available to them. Sometimes – particularly for students of color, rural students, and those with lower incomes – it’s a concern about fitting in and feeling welcome.

And sometimes, what students hear in the news sends an overpowering message that the odds may be stacked against their success.

A case in point: Among the issues on the US Supreme Court’s docket this spring are a set of cases around “race-conscious admissions” – whether race can be a consideration in the admissions decision-making process.

There are serious questions under consideration, and people who care about equity, equality, our nation and its constitution can legitimately arrive at different opinions. But the reality is that this ruling isn’t likely to have a big impact on how universities like CSU admit undergraduate students. The decision will mostly impact highly selective institutions that have very low admissions rates.

So why write about something that doesn’t affect us?  Because if the rulings go as expected by many court prognosticators, we could very well see a lot of qualified young people choosing not to apply to college because they’ll believe they can’t get in. These are not students who couldn’t make the cut for admission. These are more often students who would be admitted and could succeed, despite whatever odds are stacked against them.  Overcoming odds is what put them in the position to be admitted. But they feel discouraged from even applying. This has played out in Michigan and California when those states banned affirmative action – it turns out that the perception of feeling unwelcome is a powerful deterrent.

And this unintended consequence should worry all of us: fewer underrepresented students going to college has long-term implications for both economic opportunity and the strength of the state’s workforce.

Our three Colorado State University campuses are designed to provide access to students from all walks of life, including those who haven’t traditionally gone to college. CSU Global – our fully online university – offers accredited, affordable college degrees and certificates to people who need to learn where they live, not on a physical college campus. CSU Pueblo is a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution that offers economically important degrees connected to career opportunities in Southern Colorado. And CSU Fort Collins, as a Land Grant university, has a 153-year-old mission to provide all Coloradans access to an advanced, research-driven university education.

Like most public universities, we don’t have “legacy admissions” that give preference to children of alumni. We admit all qualified undergraduates through a holistic admissions process that looks at the entire student and their potential to succeed at CSU. As a result, no student is denied undergraduate admission because someone else is admitted.

But students who already are inclined to feel unwelcome in college don’t know this. They know what they hear in the news – and incorrect assumptions prevent dreams from becoming their future lives.

No matter what the Supreme Court decides, public colleges and universities need to be sending a strong message that we welcome all students who are ready for college and want to pursue a degree. We always have and we always will.  The diverse and innovative higher education marketplace in Colorado offers a degree program and scholarship support to make earning a degree possible for those who want it. Race, economic status, and family history of education are not insurmountable obstacles but assets –part of the diverse and positive life experience each student brings to the campus community, enriching the lives of those around them and making our campus communities strong, vibrant, and resilient.

And so, we welcome your help – as people who care about education, individual opportunity, and the future of Colorado – in spreading this message widely to anyone you know who is asking whether higher education is right for them: “Don’t talk yourself out of your future because of what you hear in the news. The doors are open to you. Colorado’s public campuses will welcome and support you in achieving your academic and career goals.”

– tony

Tony Frank, Chancellor
CSU System

This message was included in Chancellor Frank’s April newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the Chancellor’s monthly letter.

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3D magazine with the Winter 2021 cover