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Sheila Bair’s One Weird Trick to Make Her College Less White


September 28, 2016


When former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chair Sheila Bair took over Washington College last year, she immediately started making changes. One of her goals was to find innovative ways to reduce her students’ debt burden. But she also tackled a related and not insignificant problem: the overwhelming whiteness of her campus.

Three of every four students on the school's small rural campus in Maryland are white. It's not an unusual statistic at the nation's top schools, where black students in particular rarely make up more than 8 percent of undergraduates, Education Department data show.

But for students of color, life at a mostly white college like Washington can be profoundly isolating. “The way people of color process negative racial experiences is having family and friends to talk to about them,” said Deborah Faye Carter, an associate professor at the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University. When there’s no community, there’s no support.

That makes students of color more likely to drop out: As many as 20 percent of college students from historically underrepresented communities who drop out of school do so because they feel like they don’t belong, said Terrell Strayhorn, a professor and director of the Center for Higher Education Enterprise at the Ohio State University.

Washington College is located in Kent County, home to a public school system that was among the last in the nation to desegregate following the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education according to the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. Vestiges of that past remain in Chestertown, where some black students have said they've felt like they're being watched while frequenting shops in town, said Alisha Knight, a professor at Washington College since 2004.