Higher Education in Boston – Lily Youngberg



At the beginning of this tour of spaces created by higher education institutions, some questions were asked that we can now begin to answer. The first question was, How have these institutions affected their surrounding neighborhoods and the culture of urban college life? Throughout the tour, we saw many instances demonstrating the impact of universities on the communities they’re located in. A prime example of this is Harvard University’s Medical School. Despite its location in the Longwood Medical Area, the school is right near Mission Hill, notoriously with a high student population. However, with the increasing development of these medical and higher education institutions, gentrification rears its head, forcing the housing prices upwards and converting older buildings into luxury apartments and condominiums.

The second question is a reverse of the previous one: How are these institutions affected by their surrounding neighborhoods and what is the resulting college (or campus) culture? A common theme for most of these institutions is their location in well-developed and what one may consider ‘desirable’ areas. Northeastern University and Emmanuel College are by the Fens, an area with so much to do. Berklee College of Music is at the north of the Fens, closer to the Back Bay area, and Boston University is alongside the Charles River. These are just a few institutes in a wide network of acclaimed private universities in this central area of Boston, and when looking at them as a whole, we can see a continuous cause and effect of the gentrification of their surrounding neighborhoods. As these neighborhoods grow wealthier, the effect is an increase in the value of the schools, and a decrease in the enrollment of low-income students. Not only this, but the location of these institutions in proximity to the public parks of the Emerald Necklace as well as to each other creates an intricate network of connections and spaces that may be inclusive, or exclusive.

Lastly, the third question posed was, What can be done to increase priority of true diversity and equality of opportunity in higher education rather than institutions being concerned about their economic and social gains? Most companies as well as educational organizations and institutions have mission statements that can be found through a simple search. For example, Northeastern’s many schools each have their own, and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Department of Political Science states the following: “We strive to create a vibrant and diverse community, characterized by collaboration, creativity, an unwavering commitment to excellence and an equally unwavering commitment to exhibiting respect for one other. We aspire to be a model for what our society can be.” Unfortunately, much of the time these mission statements are not completely fulfilled by the company or institution to which they belong. These statements are goals, yet they cannot be reached unless the institution is held accountable for it, creating and enforcing policies and an environment that truly strives to uphold their mission.

The system of higher education is one that is deeply flawed and rooted in the past, favoring economic and social gains. There is a wide variety and diversity of institutions, but diversity within them is another matter. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Series in 2017, “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality.” lays down some surprising statistics in its section on Boston campuses. From 1980 to 2015, the percentage of African-American student enrollment in many renowned universities has hardly changed, if at all, and if it did, it decreased. The priorities of these universities includes diversity, but the sort of ‘diversity’ that flies from overseas, bringing with it the money they need to fund the school. African-American students would cost the institution more than it’d make from recruiting them. When we compare Northeastern University with Roxbury Community College, the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the value placed on diversity. Around 5% of students enrolled at Northeastern are African American, while at Roxbury Community College, African Americans account for about 61% of enrolled students.

Looking back at the different sites on this tour, we can now understand the scope of higher education’s impact on the city of Boston. The value placed on these institutions goes back hundreds of years, and will continue hundreds of years in the future. Private institutions may create public spaces that largely benefit the community, as Harvard did with the Arnold Arboretum. They may provide the nation with important research and turn out some of the best workers in the workforce. The influences of these institutions may be overlooked and sometimes invisible, but they are there, and they are felt by the communities that they’re directly connected to and changing, for better or for worse. It’s essential to understand the history and processes of these institutions as well as their relationships to other landscapes and their place as a whole in the urban landscape. These relationships can change and must change if the issues of accessibility and equity in higher education are to be addressed. 

In order to understand the complex history behind the development of higher education institutes, we must take a step back and look at the whole picture. These institutions are located where they are for a reason, and the history of the communities they are located in have played a role in the areas developments, thus in the schools as well. Schools receive funding; the degree to which they do, who they receive it from, and what they use that funding for, shapes the culture of colleges and higher education as well. The nuances of standardized testing and financial aid strongly influence who is able to attend a university and who is unwelcome. These histories and intricate systems of and within the higher education system all contribute to the culture and diversity of a school.

Where diversity is disparate, students and the administrators should not turn a blind eye, because they lose out on the talents and dedication of non-admitted students who are victims to institutional issues. Systemic racism and prospective students lack of opportunity and resources, not of their own fault, but the fault of the higher education system, are heavily contributing factors to the lack of diversity. As we understand this and really see the biased operations of these esteemed institutions, we can make efforts to improve this interconnected system and the complex relationships that exist within higher education.