Powered by Publics: LSU Part of National Effort to Increase College Access and Completion

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During the Fall of 2018, the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU) announced it's Powered by Publics initiative, the largest concerted effort to increase college access in history. The initiative has three goals: (1) award hundreds of thousands more degrees by 2025; (2) eliminate the achievement gap for low-income, minority, and first-generation students, while maintaining or expanding access to higher education for these students; (3) share key data within the clusters and promulgate proven practices across the entire public higher education sector. As of December 2018, 130 institutions have joined the initiative. The coalition of intuitions plans to find evidence-based strategies and new solutions to achieve equity in college access. Powered by Publics is an institutional response to the 21st century college access movement, which traces its roots to the student organizing of the 60s and 70s.

Months before the APLU's announcement, the National Association for College Admission Counseling released a study on Test-Optional Policies (TOPs), admissions policies that don't require standardized tests (SAT or ACT). They found that TOPs increased enrollment of students of color and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. Their findings are not surprising, studies have shown that the SAT and ACT have large, racial performance gaps (Freedle, 2003) (Santelices & Wilson, 2010) (Rattani, 2016) (Johnson, 2003), positioning them as barriers to college for Black and Latino students. Since 2004, over 1,000 accredited colleges and universities across the country have adopted TOPs, a trend that more will follow. With the movement toward college access, the enrollment of Black college students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds is expected to increase in the next 10 years.

While administrations pursue new ways to prioritize diversity and accessibility, so must academic departments and programs. English composition, a course required for all students despite their program of study, is arguably the most important and most in need of change. Lynn Bloom has argued that composition is not only about English instruction, it is about initiating students into proper citizenship. It serves as students' first introduction to academic discourse and has the potential to shape their relationship with it moving forward. Composition is a gatekeeper to college access in this way and needs to change with the changing student body. There is no shortage of literature about diversifying college composition, however, composition courses continue to be taught in ways that are hostile to the success of Black students.

There are two ways that college composition negatively impacts Black students: the normalizing of white, middle class values and the denial of Black Vernacular English (BVE) in the classroom. To address these issues, I propose that English departments incorporate Hip Hop educational research into their curriculum. Hip Hop pedagogies provide the perfect nexus of culturally relevant linguistic and rhetorical study. According to Emery Petchauer, there are three kinds of Hip Hop educational research: (a) hip-hop-based education•studies that use hip-hop, especially rap songs and lyrics, as curricular and pedagogical resources; (b) hip-hop, meaning(s), and identities•studies that focus on how students mobilize these texts and how they intersect with identities; and (c) hip-hop aesthetic forms•studies that conceptualize the ways of doing or habits of mind produced by hip-hop practices. Applied to practice, these Hip Hop pedagogies will scaffold analytical skills, affirm the academic validity of BVE, and sharpen critical literacies through comparative cultural study.

The Composition Classroom as a Site for Assimilation

Cultural assimilation is the process that minority students undergo as they adapt the culture, language, and norms of higher education, a culture that is exclusively middle-class and white. The process is not linear, nor is it absolute, but it is required in some aspect for success within the university structure. Non-white and/or lower-class students must learn to speak and write in Sanctioned American English (SAE) (Elbow, 2010) and conduct themselves according to middle-class propriety. Students who do not conform have difficulty navigating the academy, receive poor grades, or in the worst cases, drop-out. Black undergraduates, who have the lowest retention and graduation rate with the highest drop-out rate, face significant damage to their mental health due to the pressures of assimilation (McGee & Stovall, 2015). The primary site for assimilation in the college and university structure is the English composition classroom, where students are first taught to divorce their academic identities from their native culture.

According to Lynn Bloom, freshman composition is a middle-class enterprise where students are initiated as good citizens of the university, and essentially, the middle-class. After completing the course, students are expected to effectively participate in the dominant discourse of the middle-class. This expectation is shaped by higher education's promise of class mobility and is the unspoken reason the course is required as an entry-point. Students are indoctrinated and disinfected by the value systems upheld by middle-class teachers in middle-class institutions. Values like respectability, propriety, order, and self-reliance pervade the classroom and hurt lower-class students who have different value systems. Adding a critical race lens to Bloom's class lens positions Black students as experiencing a compounded clash of value systems in the composition classroom. Due to the history of slavery and racist social policies in the U.S., race is strongly correlated with class status. The middle-class is historically and majority white and the lower-class is Black and Latinx (Gans, 2005). Therefore, freshman composition is not only a middle-class enterprise, but a white enterprise.

The dominant narrative is that all students, regardless of race, enter higher education with the goal of upward mobility. If this is true, why would upholding middle-class, white values of communication and expecting students to assimilate be problematic if it allows them the mobility that they seek? It is problematic because the dominant narrative of class mobility is not the only narrative, nor does it account for the complexity of the race-class matrix. Not all students of color enter higher education with the goal of a middle-class life, a point that Carmen Kynard illustrates in her book Vernacular Insurrections. Her composition colleague's belief that Black students wanted the same liberal arts education as everyone else (2) was vastly different than what her inner-city, high school students expected from college. They imagined college as a liberatory tool that could provide them with the knowledge they needed to better their communities and increase access to higher education for students like themselves, a sentiment I heard echoed by many Black students when I was an undergraduate. I found that even students outside of the social sciences and humanities, students who were pursuing paths in engineering, computer science, or health wanted to connect their work to the communities they came from by reducing racial disparities. Goals like these require fluid communication skills, not the strict adherence to white, middle-classed language taught in college composition, language inaccessible to the people they want to help.

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Powered by Publics: LSU Part of National Effort to Increase College Access and Completion. (2019, Aug 08). Retrieved February 22, 2024 , from

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