Excellence and Equity

7 February 2024
By Alison Byerly | Photo by Nate Ryan ’10
Alison Byerly

Academic excellence is such a foundational dimension of life at Carleton that we almost take it for granted. When you pause outside a classroom to listen in on a lively discussion or go to comps presentations and hear students present high-level research, you can feel the intensity and focus. Carleton is committed to the strategies that create an outstanding academic experience: admitting strong students and supporting them well; recruiting and retaining creative and committed faculty; offering a robust and varied liberal arts curriculum.

The College’s new strategic direction, Carleton 2033: The Liberal Arts in Action, both builds on our long tradition of academic excellence and plants the seeds for future growth and transformation. As we focus our priorities for the institution, however, the different values we cherish can seem to be in competition with each other. I have occasionally sensed a concern that Carleton’s historic commitment to academic excellence may be overshadowed by our aspirations for equity, inclusion, and community, as articulated both in Carleton 2033 and our Community Plan for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity in 2021. Here’s why I see excellence and equity as complementary, not competing, goals for Carleton.

Carleton 2033 recognizes the importance of continuing to nurture academic excellence through concrete actions. Curiosity is at the center of the plan’s academic recommendations because we know that deep intellectual curiosity on the part of students, and continued innovation and experimentation on the part of faculty, are critical ingredients of the specific mode of academic rigor and quality that characterizes Carleton.

Carleton tends to attract students who are invested in intellectual exploration for its own sake, and that in turn attracts faculty who have a genuine love of teaching such students. The interaction between curious students and creative faculty creates a powerful intellectual circuit that sparks extraordinary learning and discovery.

This kind of energy depends upon the influx of new people and ideas, which is why the college benefits from creating the most diverse community possible and ensuring that all voices are heard. We aim to ensure that a Carleton education is accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Here, financial aid plays a critical role. Carleton 2033 articulates a plan for broadening the socioeconomic diversity of our community by increasing the percentage of highest-need students—a goal that does not require changing our academic standards. Rather, an increased percentage will result from having enough financial aid to be able to admit additional talented high-need applicants who we currently cannot afford to admit.

The educational benefits of a diverse community are widely understood and actively sought by the best colleges and universities. The fact that even traditional college rankings now incorporate measures of socioeconomic diversity is one indication of the increased importance placed on a college’s ability to support students from all income levels.

In fact, the value of a liberal arts education is perhaps most visible in its impact on students who come with the fewest resources. Research into career outcomes for low-income students who attend elite colleges and universities demonstrates that their future earnings are generally comparable to high-income peers from the same institutions. Not only are students from different income levels equally capable, it seems, lower-income students achieve the greatest boost to socioeconomic mobility as a result of their education.

Working toward equity of experience for all students also involves recognizing the impact of many aspects of a Carleton education outside the classroom, such as off-campus study, internships and externships, and community engagement. Expanding access to such experiences to students on financial aid is another important goal. Here, too, research has shown that these kinds of “high-impact practices” contribute strongly to academic success, correlating with higher retention and graduation rates.

In our classrooms, excellence is defined in part by how well a student has risen to the challenges presented. The same is true for Carleton as an institution. Providing a great education to students from similar backgrounds, incomes, and environments would make Carleton a very good school. Providing a great education to a diverse student population who bring a wide range of experiences is what will make Carleton excellent.

Our success as a college 10, 20, and 30 years from now will be measured by our ability to offer a transformative liberal arts education to students from all backgrounds, and by their contributions to a global society in need of thoughtful citizens and leaders. As we steer the college into the next phase of its journey, I am proud that our community recognizes that fundamental principles of equity are an important component of how we define excellence at Carleton.

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