When Brand Names Don’t Fit

Over the past few decades, many education advocates and reformers have advanced a philosophy that what low income, students of color need most is to attend a brand name institution, filled with wealthy students whose families have attended college for generations.

For years, people have focused on undermatching – a philosophy that says that very talented students of color from low income areas aren’t steered enough into “the best” colleges and university where they meet the qualifications. Of course, students should be exposed to every type of institution for which they qualify. But too many of these initiatives fail to mention the most important factor in the college selection process.


Simply stated, for all students, is the institution best for them academically, socially, spiritually, as well as financially? Has there been an assessment of the needs of the student so that a range of factors can be analyzed to ensure that this is a place where the student can thrive, not simply survive. Is it a place where the student sees him or herself, a place where they are not simply admitted and enrolled but accepted and embraced?

There is no doubt that a brand name school on a resume looks great. But no one asks what damage has been done to their psyche from being in an environment that is not always hospitable. None of these lists indicate the number of racist or hate crime incidents on top ranked campuses. A quick search of any of these schools will often yield an example of problematic racial incident. A new survey indicates measured the frequency of uncivil, hate and bias incidents on campus. The study found that 77 percent of respondents indicated an incident within the past 24 months.

And yet too many counselors push students into these environments without being upfront and honest about what they will experience. Many times they are surrounded by peers with wealth and privilege, who often harbor racial attitudes that they express in one form or another. And in the end family wealth is a major factor driving graduation rates, so there is no guarantee that being in the proximity of wealth transfers success to those without it.

Our notions of equity must evolve so that we don’t narrowly define it by the ability of underrepresented groups being present on high performing campuses as defined by graduation rates. In fact, there is a level of bigotry present by ignoring a wide range of schools which may in fact be a better fit for students. Fit is not simply going to the highest ranked school which admits you. Fit means finding the school where you feel you belong, accepting the imperfections present at that school. That is an equitable result.

And besides, what good is a brand name if it doesn’t fit?