New faculty Kelly Slay: Access and equity for the underserved

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2020-21. Read more profiles in the series.

By Kurt Brobeck

After finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan, Kelly Slay made the pivotal decision to move to Chicago. It was there, working with high school students, that her interest was sparked in the topics that continue to motivate her today as a researcher. Those experiences, she says, “serve as the foundation of my scholarship focused on issues related to race, access, diversity and equity in higher education.”

As a GEAR-UP college readiness coach for high school students in Chicago’s public schools, Slay helped prepare Black and Latinx students for the college application process. She also mentored students at a charter school on Chicago’s South Side and volunteered as a minority student recruiter for the University of Michigan. A first-generation college student herself, Slay brought her own experience to these interactions even as she became more deeply interested in understanding the factors that shaped students’ enrollment decisions.

“At the heart of my research is a passion to improve access and equity for students traditionally underserved by our educational systems.”

“I found it intriguing, for example, how many of the Latinx students I worked with were set on starting their postsecondary education in one of Chicago’s community colleges, and how one of my mentees, a young, brilliant Black woman interested in premed, was hesitant to apply to an elite institution because it was ‘too white’ and ‘unwelcoming,’” Slay says.

After completing a master’s degree at DePaul University, Slay returned to the University of Michigan where she earned her doctorate in higher education with a concentration in public policy. In 2017 she was selected as one of five inaugural President’s Postdoctoral Fellows at the University of Maryland, where she also was an associate in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education and served as affiliated faculty with the Higher Education and Student Affairs program.

As an assistant professor of higher education and public policy in Peabody College’s Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations, Slay hopes to extend her research on Black students’ experiences and examine enrollment management policies in selective institutional contexts. “At the heart of my research is a passion to improve access and equity for students traditionally underserved by our educational systems,” she says.

Slay’s work has been published in Teachers College Record, Educational Policy and The Review of Higher Education. Her recent research on organizational change for diversity in graduate education illustrates one of the common challenges faced by higher education institutions: cultivating a shared commitment to diversity that goes deeper than images and rhetoric but extends to the quality of students’ experiences, mentoring relationships, well-being and academic outcomes.

Slay also is developing a project that will explore the ways in which the global pandemic has shaped the college choices and destinations for Black high school students. The study will situate race, family background and school context in the broader system of structural inequality, which has been further exacerbated by COVID-19.