Colleges Hope To Engage Students On Wealth Gap

Many students at Keene State College and Mount Wachusett Community College already know something about the widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else. Now, the schools are working together to get them to do something about it.

Keene State, a four-year liberal arts college in New Hampshire, and Mount Wachusett, a two-year college in Gardner, Massachusetts, are leading a national project to engage students on the relationship between economic inequality, public policy, economic opportunity and social mobility.

The schools will develop new courses and explore ways to update their current curriculum, with a focus on getting students to become active participants in their communities. The lessons learned will spread to more than two dozen other schools taking part in the project developed by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

"In order to sustain our democracy, we need to not only understand our system, but engage in the system," said Mount Wachusett President Daniel Asquino. "I think we've lost some of that, and as a result, while we are still a rich and vibrant and economically successful nation, most of our wealth is at the top 2 or 3 percent."

Both schools already make civic engagement a priority for students, many of whom come from lower-income homes. At Keene, more than 40 percent of students are the first generation of their families to go to college, said President Anne Huot.

"We serve within that population a relatively large number of students who are coming from families of lesser means, and they come also from challenged communities," she said. She envisions the new project as a pathway on which students move "from their own experience, to their education to engagement."

Similarly, Asquino hopes the project will move students from awareness to action.

"At a community college - the average age is 25, we educate more persons of color, more individuals with disadvantages - they're aware of their circumstances. But we want them to be aware not only of their circumstances, but of the opportunities that exist in the community for them to grow, and for the community to grow," he said. "And after that, constantly question, `What is it I can do? What is my obligation to this democracy, and what can I do to help my fellow citizens?"

An economics professor at Keene State proposed the idea to the AASCU, and once it was approved, the Massachusetts school was invited to participate. Keene students already are working on a presentation that explores public policy and the rising cost of higher education, including New Hampshire's history of ranking last in per capita state spending for public colleges and universities. Other areas of focus will include financial literacy and the minimum wage, Huot said.

At Mount Wachusett, Asquino said a new course that will bring together economics, social studies, biology and other disciplines has been developed and if approved, will be offered next fall.

"Our new generation is more engaged than some of the others, but this is something that has to be longitudinal and infused in our curriculum," he said.


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