Female student working at her laptop.

Basketball is engrained in my soul. Whether it is because I was born in Indiana, or that my parents co-founded a youth basketball league in Boca Raton, Fla., the game remains in my DNA decades later. And so it is no surprise—in those familiar moments with family – that we quote the movie Hoosiers.

In one pivotal scene, when the basketball team is introduced, the fans express dismay at the star player not being on the team. The coach then takes the microphone and says, “I hope you would support who we are, not who we are not.” And then he speaks to the sacrifices the players make to be on the team.

That has always stuck with me. Ever more so as I entered the field of higher education, and of late.

I, like most, have fallen into the trap of referring to students with “risk factors” for success as vulnerable populations. It is embedded in our culture.

For example, on a recent Sunday morning, while writing an introductory chapter for a forthcoming volume on the impact of COVID-19 on community colleges, I took a moment to write a LinkedIn post. It has this sentence: “Working on a manuscript this morning and reminded of this fact: using FTE only (not headcounts) to fund higher education substantially undercounts enrollments at colleges serving the most valuable populations.” FTE means full-time equivalent and it’s a measure used to assess enrollment and funding – often to the detriment of community colleges, where some students take fewer credits as they juggle school and work.

But back to my point. Soon after I published my post, I received a message from a friend, suggesting the spell-check may not have caught my typo. Namely, he wondered if I meant “vulnerable” rather than “valuable.”

At moments like this, I pause, center myself, close my eyes, and picture the students I learned alongside as well as those I have taught. Then I overlay the faces with known “risk factors” to complete college such as enrolling part-time, being a parent, and struggling to pay all the bills. The images of classmates come into view.

I think about the stories they shared during breaks in class or on the phone. I recall the awe I had for them because my life was comparably easy. I think of the diverse viewpoints they brought to class, and the model they set for others on how to make the most of limited time, and to engage with purpose. I think of the pain they worked to overcome and the social stigma associated with “rising above their position in life.”

So, when we put a human face to data-informed labels, we need to see people, not for the vulnerability they present to the institution, but for the value they bring to society.

In short, to see them for who they are, not who they are not.

Christopher Mullin, Ph.D., is strategy director of data and measurement for Lumina Foundation.


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