Pipeline to Academic Diversity

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Tuesday, June 20, 2023
By Clarence E. Ball III
Photo by iStock/Vladimir Vladimirov
A high school program at Fordham University brings in students from underrepresented populations, transforming the school and the community.
  • Fordham’s Jesuit mission calls for the Gabelli School of Business to step outside its gates and serve immigrants and first-generation students in the nearby community.
  • A pipeline program trains high school juniors in business basics through a tailored curriculum that includes case studies and a pitch competition.
  • The program is run by members of Gabelli’s DEI Student Advisory Board, which was created to make sure that all students at the business school feel welcomed and celebrated.

Students are the future of business, so all business colleges should be working with students to co-create the future. At Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business (GSB) in New York City, one way we have been able to do this is through a pipeline program that encourages high school students to enter the field of business.

Gabelli’s Corporate Communications High School Pipeline Program (CCP program) was launched in 2018 after the then-president of Fordham issued a mandate for the school to establish closer relationships with Catholic high schools serving the community. At Fordham, we strive not to view the world outside the business school as a distant population. Rather, our Jesuit mission directs us to step outside our gates—not just to funnel more academically diverse talent into our classrooms, but also to transform the city we call home.

Through this program, we have been able to create leadership opportunities for students and engagement opportunities for Fortune 500 companies, community partners, and alumni. We have also gained insights into how we want DEI to function at our school.

Origins of the Pipeline

The CCP program began as a partnership with the McQuade Honors Program at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx borough of New York. Twelve high-achieving students from the honors program completed a full semester of coursework that covered business disciplines such as finance, marketing, operations, and DEI corporate strategy. Over the years, the number of students in the program has grown, and in 2022–23, we served 60 young scholars at five high schools in the Bronx and Harlem.

The academically rigorous high school program is based on the sophomore core curriculum taught at the Gabelli School. In fact, GSB sophomores teach the high school courses, which reinforces their own understanding of the material. Before they begin teaching in the high school classroom, these student instructors first work with GSB faculty on curriculum development and community sensitivity training.

For the high school students, a key part of the learning experience is working on a business case study. Students are divided into teams that are supported by GSB instructors and mentors. Each team receives a case study of a publicly traded company on the Fortune 500 list, such as Apple, that has been in the media for a DEI-related public relations crisis. The high schoolers must come up with solutions to their company’s DEI problem. Later, each student delivers a memorized speech in front of a large audience as part of a pitch proposal competition. Through this model, high school students ready themselves for the college classroom and increase their academic self-efficacy.

One of the goals of the program is to attract diverse students to Fordham University, and we’ve achieved that objective. Five of the 12 participants in the inaugural year were accepted to Fordham in fall 2019, and they graduated in spring 2023. Overall, the CCP program has pipelined roughly 20 students into Fordham University or the Gabelli School.

CCP students who are accepted into the Gabelli School know they are ready to handle the rigors of our curriculum. They also feel like they truly belong—because they do.

The Gabelli School works directly with the university’s admissions office to provide income-based tuition waivers to CCP students who are accepted into Fordham or the Gabelli School. (This is significant, as tuition and fees can be greater than 90,000 USD per year.) More funding comes from corporate sponsors, as well as three alumni who support scholarships for our pipeliners. We’ve even developed the First-Year Diversity Scholars Program to help pipeliners and other freshmen from underrepresented groups find early internships.

Those who are accepted into the Gabelli School know they are ready to handle the rigors of our curriculum. They also feel like they truly belong—because they do.

Students Lead the Way

A crucial element of the CCP program is that much of the work is handled by Fordham students who are part of the Gabelli School’s DEI Student Advisory Board. The school launched this group about five years ago to make sure that all our students feel welcomed and celebrated.

The board is made up of graduate and undergraduate students who organize cultural events and DEI-related initiatives. For instance, the students plan our school’s celebrations of Diwali, Lunar/Chinese New Year, Holi, and Juneteenth, as well as events such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, Black History Month, AAPI Month, and Pride Month. The board also runs our annual awards banquet that celebrates the DEI contributions of faculty, staff, students, distinguished alumni, community members, and corporate partners.

The DEI Board is structured like a company, so there are co-presidents and a C-suite of vice presidents who report to the school’s DEI director and handle various divisions. Each division focuses on a different activity, such as marketing and communications, statistics, grant writing, operations, and community-engaged learning.

The community-engaged learning unit is the one that oversees instruction and mentoring for students in the CCP program. Coordinating closely with GSB’s DEI director, the students who run the CCP program lead the team of college classroom instructors and mentors, many of whom are students who are also on the DEI board. They also work directly with PwC, one of our corporate sponsors.

The current co-leaders of the CCP program are Luz Perez and Andres Cintron, both of whom participated in the program in 2019 when they were juniors in high school. Although the program was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic, Luz stayed in touch with school administrators, and Andres rejoined the CCP in his senior year. He and his high school team won the 2021 CCP pitch proposal competition with a project that addressed Snapchat’s lack of career pipelines for women and other underrepresented groups.

We were thrilled when both Luz and Andres applied to and were accepted into the Gabelli School of Business, where they eventually became members of the DEI board. Under their leadership, the CCP program has had its most successful year yet. In exchange for their work, each of them has received 5,000 USD in scholarships. Combined with the admissions waiver, this brings them close to full-need scholarships.

The Gabelli School’s DEI Student Advisory Board was launched about five years ago to make sure that all our students feel welcomed and celebrated.

The DEI Student Advisory Board is really the glue that holds the CCP program together. This program is the perfect example of Gabelli’s mission, and Luz and Andres are our mission personified.

The CCP program has clarified for us three guiding principles about how to incorporate DEI initiatives into our operations, and we think these could be adopted by any school.

1. Cultivate Relationships in the Community

Too often, the DEI recruitment efforts of an institution come down to “pool watching.” As defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar in critical race theory, pool watching is when organizations hover over an applicant pool in hopes that some unlikely, underrepresented prospective candidate will jump out. It’s an ineffective strategy that leads institutions to claim that diverse applicants just do not apply.

To combat this kind of ideology, business schools should develop meaningful relationships with local high schools that have top academic talent. At GSB, we work with Catholic high schools that offer AP courses, but other colleges might choose to partner with public, charter, or independent schools that have rigorous honors programs. Through our own partnerships, we have found a wealth of diverse talent that otherwise we wouldn’t have known existed.

These honors students frequently come from first-generation or immigrant families. They normally are the smartest in their schools, and they are thirsty for college access and advancement programs. Many say they are interested in becoming doctors and lawyers, because those are the only jobs smart people hold on TV. If business schools want to fill our classrooms with the broadest range of academic talent, and if we want to prepare the best leaders of tomorrow, we need to go out into the community to educate young people about the possibilities of business careers.

For many students from underrepresented populations, universities appear to be enchanted halls where they are not welcome. It’s our responsibility to invite them in.

2. Provide Institutional Support

Any diversity program must be planted in good soil, and leaders responsible for its success must be motivated to tend that soil. A business school needs to place an equity-minded DEI practitioner at the helm of its DEI programs and initiatives to drive ideation and operations management. The school also must empower a person on its senior leadership team to achieve DEI output in ways that meet the institution’s goals.

At GSB, we are focused on social justice, which means we aim to achieve parity among groups in all pursuits, and we rely heavily on our students to achieve our goals. In fact, because DEI offices frequently are understaffed, it can be a great idea to bring in students who can assume some of the mountainous workload while also enjoying opportunities to develop their own leadership capabilities.

When students participate in equity work, they develop thorough DEI training in implicit bias, color blindness, social justice frameworks, and corporate strategies on ESG issues.

At the Gabelli School, the members of our student advisory board take on much of the DEI work. For instance, Luz and Andres coordinate with the DEI director to provide community sensitivity training to all our college instructors. They provide instructors and mentors with details of the 15-week high school curriculum. And they attend functions such as dinners and galas so they can engage with the alumni and corporate partners who support our program.

When our students participate in equity work through our advisory board and other initiatives, they develop thorough DEI training in implicit bias, color blindness, social justice frameworks, and corporate strategies on environmental, social, and governance issues. They’re also introduced to the concept of the ladder of inference, which describes the process humans use to make decisions about other people.

DEI work happens from the inside out. When we help change students’ ideas about DEI frameworks, we ensure that they are doing good work without causing harm in the sometimes fragile communities we serve.

3. Define What DEI Means to Your School

The term diversity has been refined in so many ways that it could mean anything or nothing at all. Business schools cannot afford to use obtuse DEI definitions and debunked theories to create flimsy equity policies. DEI program administrators must understand the theoretical frameworks that undergird the policies at their universities. For example, according to Crenshaw’s work on critical race theory and intersectionality, color-blind and gender-neutral policies have been rendered useless in social justice efforts. Because the CCP program is a social justice program, we did think about gender equality and equity among ethnic groups as we designed and implemented the program.

At the Gabelli School, many of the students we recruit are from first-generation or immigrant families. Our mission and our DEI framework suggest that we should be using our resources to create on-ramps into our institution for underrepresented students. In fact, this is a strategy that has worked very well for us in the past.

When most of our partner high schools were founded between 1850 and 1950, many of the students were Irish, Portuguese, and Italian. When the Bronx Catholic schools of that era sent young scholars to Fordham, the university followed its Jesuit mission to uplift a class of first-generation educated immigrants. Now, our successful older alumni are using their dollars and their board positions to keep their former high schools connected to Fordham through the CCP program.

We are pleased that the DEI frameworks the university used so successfully in the past continue to be successful today. We believe these strategies will enable us to uplift new generations from the Bronx and create opportunities for Gabelli’s students now and into the future.

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Clarence E. Ball III
Director of DEI, Gabelli School of Business, Fordham University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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