Before the pandemic, two researchers dug into a particular type of college — what they dubbed the “new university.” It’s a public research university striving for status in national rankings. It’s also a campus that enrolls more students who are racially marginalized and economically disadvantaged. Many of those campuses don’t have the same wealth that predominantly white research universities have long cultivated. And when a disaster like Covid-19 hits, these colleges don’t have the financial cushion that softens the blow for state flagships.
The researchers — Laura T. Hamilton, professor and chair of sociology at the University of California at Merced, and Kelly Nielsen, a senior research analyst at the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of California at San Diego — realized there would soon be more of these colleges. Demographic shifts nationally will force changes in the racial composition of the student body at historically white research universities. That will require support from administrators, faculty, staff, and community members, and a responsiveness to students’ protests. And regional public universities, seeking new revenue, will seek to expand their research output. These ambitions, often funded by undergraduate tuition, can have consequences for campus culture.
Their new book, Broke: The Racial Consequences of Underfunding Public Universities, shows how some of those consequences emerge. Hamilton and Nielsen spent a year at Merced and at the University of California at Riverside, conducting interviews for the book, which was released this month. They spoke with The Chronicle this week about what the transition to a “new university” looks like, what the fallout is for students, and how Covid-19 exposes these divides. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book Broke probes differences between different groups of research universities. How would you define the key group here, which you call “new universities,” to someone who hadn’t picked up the book before?
Hamilton: We discussed new universities as research universities that are serving a large percentage of racially marginalized students, many of whom are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. These new universities are often quite old. They are usually schools that have converted from predominantly white schools to schools that are serving new populations, that are looking to these racially marginalized youth as the lifeblood of the research university. New universities are particularly resource-starved. The funding structure of higher education has changed to where even public schools are more dependent on private funds. Nonresident tuition, philanthropic investments, corporate donations, donations from others — these schools get less of that. And as a result, they’re often trying to do more with less.
Nielsen: They are, to a greater or lesser degree, trying to reimagine what the status hierarchies of higher education look like. Not only are they serving particular student bodies and trying to make them the lifeblood of the campus, but trying to reimagine what it means to be a high-status university — providing access, increasing retention, persistence, and graduation rates, achieving equitable outcomes. They try to turn those into status markers of their institutions.
Why is it unhelpful to lump all research universities in the same category?
Hamilton: Higher education has long experienced racial and economic segregation. A lot of times when people talk about this, they say, ‘Well, Black and Latinx students, they attend community colleges, regional universities, for-profit schools at higher levels.’ But racially marginalized students are breaking into research universities. When they do that, they typically don’t attend with their racially and economically privileged peers. They tend to be concentrated in particular research universities. It’s not helpful to lump these campuses together, because they’re serving entirely different populations.
As demographics shift, you write that more campuses are expected to go down this path to becoming “new universities.” What can they anticipate?
Nielsen: At UC-Merced and UC-Riverside there were conflicts between conservative students and progressive students. There’s the potential for these kinds of conflicts to occur on campuses elsewhere.
Hamilton: At Merced, when the school obtained an HSI distinction, a Hispanic-serving distinction, white flight happened. You have to bring faculty along with this change. Faculty have a lot of racist ideas. One of the things that both campuses had to deal with were faculty who had beliefs that if they were an HSI, that meant that the school was lesser quality. And embedded in there is an assumption: if you’re serving brown students, that somehow you’re not high quality. They didn’t say that, but it’s there. You have to also bring the faculty along. Riverside did a good job of helping faculty change their beliefs or have an understanding of their new student body.
You write that some of getting a community rallied around the work of being a “new university” can in some ways make students vulnerable. Sharing their narratives of adversity — in an effort to show why the work matters — can expose them. How do you do this right?
Hamilton: The exploitation dynamic is sort of a feature of a competitive system in which schools are jockeying for status and private money. All universities, no matter who they’re serving, are in some ways selling their students or relying on students to bring resources to them. Elite wealthy schools rely on their students’ tuition and their families’ donations. In a system where that is a given, schools serving disadvantaged students are put in a bad spot. If they enact the same model, where they use their student population to provide resources, they could be exploiting a group that’s already exploited. Some of the problem is somewhat intractable. That is the way we’ve set up the structure of higher education. It’s not primarily publicly funded anymore.
One thing that campuses could do — Riverside has a really powerful structure of cultural centers. These centers are staffed and have connections to the local community. And one of the things that one could do is bring leadership in greater communication with those centers, because those centers are tapped into the local communities.
Nielsen: Having that relationship between the leadership and the community, that can go a long way, particularly if that leadership believes and expresses to others that everyone on campus is going to get an equally great education. Cultural centers, they do provide a kind of backstop or a check on the ability of leadership to shift focus entirely away from the students. If there are things on campus that need to be addressed, they can bring those community ties in to exert some pressure to make sure that the campus is really working in the best interest of all the students.
Underfunded new universities, you write, turn to marginalized students to increase revenues or lower costs. What finding felt most striking to you?
Nielsen: At Riverside, what was so striking was the widespread culture of supporting students. Everyone had the same expectations of world-class research, being a UC campus, but the identity was serving that student body. What that translated into was a greater, more positive campus climate, but also the sense that students could be comfortable enough to make demands from their university. The campus really created a self-reinforcing environment where students felt it was their campus. It was widespread, and it translated into tremendous academic success.
Hamilton: I’m a faculty member at UC-Merced, and I’ve been here over a decade. The thing that was most surprising for me was just how sparse the resources were. The faculty were protected from knowing how limited the support was for staff, who are vital to students’ experiences and success. Our staff at UC-Merced are amazing, but they were doing more with the least possible amount of resources that you could imagine. I spent time shadowing advisers. There was no way for these well-trained, skilled workers to do their jobs really well because of the number of students they were serving. What kind of bind that puts someone in. To be put in a position where then you can’t really support them in the way that you want to, I think, is gut-wrenching. I had people cry as they were talking about that reality. Unlike prior eras of history, where you could turn to the government to provide the support you would need, Merced was on their own. They didn’t have the staff. The resource disparities that aren’t always obvious to faculty members or maybe even administrators, that caught my eye.
At one point in the book, Merced tries to determine how to make cuts. In your book, you write that one staff member said in response, “Everyone needs to know that the wagon wheels are going to fall off, and replacement wheels will be several weeks out. This place is breaking, and no one seems to mind.” They moved to a policy called “tolerable sub-optimization.”
Marginalized students are perceived as not being the squeaky wheel. Those who are privileged tend to have a greater megaphone.
Hamilton: There was no other way forward. They didn’t manage it well in some cases, but you have a budget. You’re in the red, and you don’t have any other resources coming in. At UC-Merced, there was a budget on one hand and then a spreadsheet full of positions that people are asking for. You can only meet a fraction of those. And every time you add one staff member, it means cutting back elsewhere. Most administrators are really well intentioned. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect and that they don’t make problematic decisions that do hurt students. But it was more of a ‘Good God, how do we keep going?’ calculation.
In general, and this isn’t speaking specifically about any administrator at UC-Merced or UC-Riverside, marginalized students are perceived as not being the squeaky wheel. Those who are privileged tend to have a greater megaphone. There is that dynamic. But Merced students, they were clear about their needs. Their voices were important.
In the pandemic, there’s a divide between the colleges that have a lot of resources to conduct testing and contact tracing — and schools that don’t. Your research concluded before Covid. But how might the pandemic exacerbate divides between new universities and other research universities?
Hamilton: Students’ lives look very different in a pandemic. Our students are on the front lines. Most are working essential jobs or have a family member who is an essential worker. Racially marginalized communities — Black or Latinx communities — have been slammed by the pandemic. I have students who have lost multiple family members, students who are primary caregivers now for their siblings, while their parents are gone all day at work. They are trying to manage their siblings’ online school. Versus, you know, Zooming with a student who is in the family vacation home on the East Coast. These are just really different realities for our student population versus other student populations.
There’s a good chance that Covid-19, an economic shock, is going to make the organizational inequalities worse. I’ve heard a lot of complaining from very elite universities about their financial situation, but they have much more cushion to rely on. That cushion doesn’t exist at Merced and Riverside. What this is going to look like for our schools depends on how the state and the federal government respond. Whether they get aid into the hands of the schools and student populations that need it most.