By Henry Fersko
Money is a touchy subject and can change the way we experience UCU. Opinions about socioeconomic diversity at UCU range from: ‘UCU is an egalitarian paradise that seeks to be as diverse as possible’ to ‘UCU is a selective and elitist institution benefitting only those who can afford it.’
While we do have a diverse campus in the sense that a wide array of countries are represented at UCU, when you look around, it’s hard not to notice an overwhelmingly white campus with the majority of students coming from a middle to upper class background. That being said, we are not all spoiled brats: most are aware of their privilege and work hard.
Increasing the amount of students from low-income families at UCU would give them greater social mobility through the network and opportunities they would gain here. Moreover, a study from the American Council on Education found that having a socioeconomically diverse campus is beneficial to all students because it produces a wider range of perspectives, richer classroom discussion, enhanced social and personal growth, along with a more realistic picture of the world outside UCU. Students from lower income families also tend to be very motivated and have a strong work ethic which can positively impact those around them.
Part of UCU’s selection criteria, as stated on the website, requires students to demonstrate that they have an ‘affinity with living and studying in an international environment.’ It may be difficult to fulfill this criteria without having attended a high school with an international program such as the International Baccalaureate. Since international programs are often on the pricier side, this criteria is inherently biased against low-income applicants. This bias is reinforced by UCU marketing itself for the most part toward high schools with international programs, meaning that those higher income students are more likely to find out about UCU in the first place.
Since Dutch citizens make up the largest nationality on campus and they have access to a great student loan system among other benefits, our best chance at getting low-income students should come from the Dutch demographic. But low-income Dutch people may be deterred from coming here because UCU’s tuition is twice as expensive as other Dutch Universities. On top of that we are mandated to pay extortionate fees for the dining hall and living on campus. But at other Dutch universities, they can opt to live at home or find an apartment in town for around half the price of our campus fees. With all these financial deterrents, it does not help that the University College concept is still somewhat obscure insofar as Dutch families perceive it. Hopefully this perception will change over time because most Dutch universities have opened a University College since UCU was founded in 1997.
“Often, first-generation University students don’t think about University College as the first place to go.” Dean James Kennedy said. He has taken a particular interest to the issue of socioeconomic diversity at UCU and even donated to the scholarship fund.
For students outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), UCU’s tuition fees increase by almost 60%. “That alone might scare them off,” Admissions officer Janneke de Graaf said. Non-EEA students also cannot work in the Netherlands, so it can be devastating for them to come here and not be able to support themselves in the long run.
According to our financial controller Dirk Reedijk, our current scholarship fund is not big enough to support a socioeconomically diverse campus. One reason for this could be that UCU is still a relatively new institution. Most universities get a substantial portion of their scholarship money from alumni donations. However, since most of our alumni are under 40, they are probably not far enough in their careers yet to be in the position to make donations.
Fortunately there are some efforts being taken on campus to improve socioeconomic diversity.
“We want to develop long-term relationships with ordinary high schools where there are lots of lower income people so we familiarize them with who we we are.” Part of developing these relationships would require students to establish a presence at public high schools.
“They don’t have to go there and just say ‘UCU is a great place’, but they could show UCU is a great place by virtue of them being of importance and significance to the students of those high schools.” Kennedy said. “One way to make this work would be through various forms of tutoring. It can be subject related or just helping students with English.”
“There may be plans to increase the number of full scholarships” said Janneke de Graaf. Currently there is only one student here on full scholarship. There is also a new fellowship program being developed at the UU.
Increasing socioeconomic diversity cannot happen in one fell swoop. It will require effort from all sides: students, administration and alumni. As the alumni populace grows and prospers, an alumni funded scholarship program should be developed by the administration. But students too should take initiatives to try to raise money for the scholarship fund.
One of the more drastic steps that may be necessary is for UCU’s administration to reconsider one of the the ways it selects and assembles an international environment. By selecting students based on their ‘affinity with living and studying in an international environment,’ we may actually be limiting diversity on campus. It is likely harder for low-income students to meet this criteria because traveling or attending an international high school is expensive. UCU would of course always remain an international environment by selecting students from around the world. Perhaps, instead of making international affinity an admission requirement, we could be a school that develops this affinity within students who do not already have it.