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December 22, 2013 10:16 AM Making college work for low-income students: an important item on the economic equality agenda

By Kathleen Geier

I wanted to share this interview that went up on YouTube earlier this week, between Washington Monthly’s editor in chief Paul Glastris and Diana Natalicio, president of the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). In our 2013 College Guide, UTEP ranked number 7 overall, and number 1 in social mobility. That’s because, as the Washington Monthly’s Daniel Luzer noted in a written interview with Natalicio, UTEP educates “mostly low-income and first-generation college students” and Natalicio has “worked to improve college access and completion.”

In the national conversation we’ve been having about economic inequality, we haven’t been talking enough about the importance of college access and affordability (I’m a fan of the idea of free public colleges, myself). But this is an essential component of restoring economic fairness to America and making the American dream a realistic goal once again, instead of an unattainable fantasy.

In case you haven’t noticed, American colleges haven’t been doing such a fantastic job at serving the needs of low- and middle- income students. Income-based diversity lags at both public and elite colleges. Disturbingly, in our so-called meritocracy, gifted children from poor families are no more likely to graduate from college than low-scoring rich kids.

That’s why it’s so important to give props to institutions and educators who are doing right by America’s low-income students — institutions like UTEP and leaders like Diana Natalicio. As you’ll hear in the interview, Natalicio has a great story of her own, of how she rose from the pink collar ghetto (after graduating from high school, she worked as a telephone operator) to university president.

I don’t write very often about education issues here at Political Animal — I tend to leave that to the folks at the College Guide. But the College Guide, its rankings, and its coverage of education issues are all a very important part of the Monthly’s mission.

I’ll put it this way: as Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “What counts is what’s counted.” That other publication that does the college rankings bases those rankings on criteria that are often either irrelevant or outright socially destructive.

The Washington Monthly, on the other hand, ranks colleges based on three main benchmarks: research, social mobility, and service. The latter two are particularly important and innovative; to my knowledge, no other previous college ranking system had measured those qualities. Now that colleges know that an organization is judging their performance based on those criteria, they have an incentive to do better in those categories. The results have been beneficial to students, to the colleges, and to society in general. The Monthly’s College Guide performs a genuine public service.

Here’s Paul’s interview with Diana Natalicio. I hope you enjoy it. And if you appreciate the College Guide and the Monthly’s coverage of education issues, won’t you please consider a tax-deductible donation to our fundraiser? You can make donation by clicking here. We are grateful for your generosity.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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