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An engine for opportunity

As higher education seeks new ways to reach diverse students, digital education offers promise.
Vice Provost Matthew Rascoff interviews Tufts sociologist Natasha Warikoo via Zoom on Feb. 8 about her book Is Affirmative Action Fair?: The Myth of Equity in College Admissions.

With the Supreme Court likely to upend affirmative action, and perhaps the entire college admissions system, this spring, many scholars and leaders are considering what might replace it. Rather than catastrophizing about the potential decision, how might we design new approaches that preserve the diversity of our educational communities for the long term? 

In a recent book talk that was part of our collaborative Academic Innovation for the Public Good series, the sociologist Natasha Warikoo made the case that we should reconnect admissions policies with institutional missions. The basis for affirmative action should be reconceived and broadened to place it on a more solid foundation. Higher education needs to recommit to building a community, class by class, that reflects its higher aims.

Universities’ digital education strategies can either replicate the problems of undergraduate admissions — or attempt to mitigate them through innovations in access and outreach. Colleges and universities seeking to serve learners online must navigate a complex terrain of policies, platforms, and players. But in traversing these unfamiliar grounds we must remain oriented towards the North Star of our educational mission. 

Matthew Rascoff
Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education

Digital learning offers the promise of beneficial growth. We may borrow from the lexicon of business, and even use business strategies, but in the end, a nonprofit institution’s mandate is to serve the common good. In Stanford's case, I believe that means expanding our offer of social mobility, which is embedded in our DNA and in which we already excel, to many more people. 

Seven years ago, in a landmark study, the economist Raj Chetty uncovered a remarkable aspect of American higher education that had previously been underappreciated. Despite their elite reputations, some of the most selective colleges and universities are powerhouses of social mobility. Low income students who attend these colleges earn essentially the same amount by age 34 as their wealthy peers. These schools defy broader trends that have increased inequality and reduced social mobility. 

At Stanford, students whose parents are in the lowest quintile of earnings end up in the 74th percentile of income by the time they reach age 34, on average. That is just five percentile points lower than their classmates whose parents were in the top quintile of income. 

When Leland and Jane Stanford dedicated the university to the “children of California” I have to imagine this is what they had in mind. For the fortunate students who come here Stanford is truly an engine of opportunity.

But for how many? The first class that Leland welcomed to Stanford University in 1891 had 555 students (including 130 women). In the 132 years since, the population of California has grown from 1.2 million to 39 million but the entering undergraduate class has barely tripled to 1,736 in the class of 2026. That is equivalent to a ten-fold reduction of our educational provision to California. 

As a result, over time Stanford has become more selective, applicants have become more stressed, and the founding vision of educational opportunity and human development has only partially borne fruit.

But it does not have to be this way. Emerging models, such as Stanford’s Code in Place, which will relaunch this spring, demonstrate an alternative. Led by Chris Piech, assistant professor of computer science, Code in Place offers a human-led, AI-assisted learning experience that is higher-touch than a MOOC but ten-fold larger than the largest campus course. An elegant inversion.

We can build on the success of Code in Place and our digital outreach partnership with the National Education Equity Lab to offer equitable pathways to higher education. The Equity Lab model is designed to meet the needs of new students, regardless of what happens to affirmative action. Still other measures can unlock our knowledge through open educational resources; offer valuable professional skills to working adults; democratize access to our networks; and offer more flexible degree options that could more effectively educate non-traditional students. 

These are just some of the ideas under consideration this year as our team at Stanford Digital Education works with colleagues across the university to determine how to amplify the best of what Stanford already does. I invite you to join us by contributing your ideas, collaborating on a project, or supporting our mission of educational innovation for individual opportunity and social mobility.

Matthew Rascoff is Stanford Vice Provost for Digital Education.

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