Equality of Opportunity vs. Equality of Outcome

Timothy Alvarez, Vice President for Student Affairs, North Dakota State University

July 20, 2016

It occurred to me quite some time ago that certain groups of students experience more privilege than others.  Some of you are probably thinking, “Wow, that is not a terribly profound statement.”  True, but let me elaborate and I think you will understand the dilemma for institutions of higher education. Equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome.

The students who are admitted to our campuses because they satisfy all admission requirements have equality of opportunity, right? Sounds like a reasonable proposition. Many campuses perceive that because we admit them and because we give them financial aid, all students will have the same opportunities to participate and acquire the type of experiences and skills, which will help them thrive and ultimately acquire gainful employment.  Equality of opportunity, right?

In fact, students from differing backgrounds might both graduate.  Ah, our work is done.  Let’s pat ourselves on the back.  But what most of us do not fully realize, or even consider, is that there will be an immense gap in terms of the experiences and ultimately the outcomes of students from dissimilar backgrounds.  Yes, both students might receive the same degree, that piece of paper conferred to them welcoming them to the community of college graduates, a feat in and of itself. Equality of outcome, right?

Now let’s dive in deeper, let’s really look at the outcome.  Is it truly equal?  Suppose we look at the experiences and credentials of two students – one, a first generation, low income student and one, a non-first generation student whose parents were college graduates and hence, were able to provide emotional and financial support.  Equality of opportunity?

The non-first generation student was able to take advantage of leadership opportunities, internships, service learning, study abroad, and was active in student government.  Maybe this student had to work but they worked part-time on campus.  Equality of opportunity?

Now for the first-generation student.  This student had to work, but worked off campus at the local department store where the wages were higher, and they offered evening and weekend hours.  This student was not even aware of leadership programs, thinking they were not a leader and could not participate.  They did not know that internships were a possibility.  And study abroad – that is only for rich kids.  And playing a role in student government – not even on the radar.  Equality of outcome?

A cursory review of the credentials of these two students will reflect the inequality of the outcome.  Remember, both of these students earned the same degree.  The major disparity  influencing the future of both students which will last a lifetime, which will never be considered during a job interview, and which will forever be seen in a deficit lens for the first generation student – the lack of internship experiences, leadership skills, worldly knowledge, understanding of bureaucracy gained by playing a role in student government, etc.

Of the two students, who do you think will be more likely to be hired?  Which student would you hire?  And which student do you believe will experience an increased sense of well-being?  That is the true impact of the equality of opportunity argument, and the fallacy that their outcomes will be equal.

How might we offer thoughtful and intentional interventions to provide opportunities for first-generation, low income students?  It reminds me of the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Or will be bold enough take a different approach?

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