The power of tertiary education – Nancy Fairbank


Nancy Fairbank (Marshall Scholar, MA International Development, University of Birmingham) reflects on Kamal Ahmad’s presentation at #TertiaryEducationWP and discusses strategies for tackling inequality in higher education

It is undoubtedly true that America has some of the premier educational institutions in the world. However, entrance to these revered universities is not equally granted and many Americans are denied a fair chance to access the opportunities provided by higher education. In the most unfortunate irony, education is known to be an incredible equalizer, but educational opportunities are least accessible to those who would most be able to benefit from its equalizing abilities. While the issue of inequity in educational opportunity is generally thought of in terms of developing countries, it is a real issue in the U.S. as well.

At the conference this past week Kamal Ahmad shared his journey of founding the Asian University for Women. In his story, I found three strategies that he uses to promote educational access for women in developing countries that could also be utilized by American institutions of higher education.

Kamal was discussing the application process for his university and he noted that if you create a single entry-point system for education, many students just will not be able to come. In the United States, we rely on certain singular factors – like SAT and ACT scores – to determine admittance to higher education. Certainly many universities boast holistic review processes, but that test score is almost always a necessary condition to even apply. It’s also a variable that deeply reflects income inequalites, with wealthier students being able to afford astronomically expensive tutoring to increase their changes of entry. When I applied to law school, some schools asked whether I had received LSAT tutoring. Why is there not the same standard for undergraduate education?

To combat some of these issues, the Asian University for Women considers both academic elements and social characteristics, looking specifically for courage, outrage at injustice and empathy – the three essential traits they believe make great leaders. Their admittance standards offer some level of flexibility and do not hang on any single entry-point as a necessary qualifier. While it would be naïve to believe U.S. universities will magically decide tomorrow that the SAT and ACT do not actually matter quite so much, they can certainly consider those scores in context. If you have a veteran who took the ACT when they were eighteen and then served in the military for six years, their score may not be as relevant as an applicant coming directly from high school.

The second point that Kamal made was about how he initially recruited women to join his university. Many women from lower socio-economic backgrounds that he met had never even considered the possibility of higher education, meaning that Kamal had to figure out how to market his university to an audience who was in no way actively seeking him out. Instead of simply setting up a university and waiting for applications, Kamal and his team would go to local factories on Fridays and wait for the girls there to be finished with their work. They would then talk with them about the university and administer academic tests on the spot if the women were interested.

By going to these underserved communities rather than expecting people to come to them, Kamal’s team was able to make education infinitely more accessible. Universities should be doing more to listen to and engage with underserved populations. Focusing more recruiting resources on groups that have traditionally more limited access to higher education would go a long way towards beginning to even educational inequity. The world of higher education is complicated to navigate on one’s own. Providing guides, especially from the same background as the disenfranchised group in question, can help students understand what opportunities are available to them so that they can decide the best path forward.

Towards the beginning of his presentation, Kamal mentioned a key factor necessary to the success of his university: trust. Especially when the Asian University for Women was first founded, Kamal and his team had to work hard to prove to the community that the college would provide women with a solid education and expand their opportunities for the future. They made an effort to educate the local populace on education itself, ensuring that parents and their daughters were making informed decisions.

When I applied to college, my parents helped me understand the differences within higher education: an associate’s degree vs. a bachelor’s, non-for-profit universities vs. for-profit colleges, vocational training vs. a liberal arts education, and so on. Unfortunately, many university applicants don’t have a Kamal looking out for them or parents that can teach them about these differences. Lacking the knowledge to make an informed decision, veterans can fall for deceptive recruiting tactics used by for-profit colleges and low-income students may take out loans to pay for a bachelor’s degree without realizing they only need an associate’s for their dream job. As a country, our faith in university education is eroding. In order to provide equitable opportunity and to begin to rebuild trust in higher education, we must work harder to ensure that our students are given the resources to be informed consumers.

While this conference could not provide all the answers to evening out educational opportunity, it did make clear that America can learn much from other nations around the globe about how to combat unequal access to opportunities in higher education. The Asian University for Women boasts a diverse student body. Nearly 15% of their students are from Afghanistan; 10% are Rohingya refugees; many are former industrial workers. The university strives to embody the idea that no one segment of society has a monopoly on talent. U.S. colleges can echo this valuable notion by actively and pre-emptively recruiting from all pools of American society, rather than waiting to seek diversity once applications have already been submitted. It is up to us to dismantle the myth of meritocracy in America and to learn from other countries how to best provide equitable educational opportunity. In doing so, we give higher education the chance to finally fulfill its role as the great societal equalizer.

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