Jonathan Zimmerman

teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of "Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know" (Oxford University Press)

In late 2015, a survey of 51 student protests at American colleges showed that 38 of them called for more diversity on the faculty. The next most common demand - heard on 35 campuses - was for mandatory diversity training. At 25 schools, students asked for special cultural centers for minorities.

And at eight colleges - only eight - students demanded more financial aid.

That speaks volumes about the recent spate of campus protest, which has been centered primarily at elite schools. Protest in the 1960s and 1970s was more widely distributed, seizing places like Kent State - where four students were killed by National Guardsmen in 1970 - as well as Ivy-type institutions. But most of the campuses that witnessed demonstrations in November 2015 and thereafter were highly selective ones, where fewer students have to worry about making ends meet.

At my own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, a recent report showed that there were no undergraduate students - that's right, zero - from the lowest quintile of American earners. And over 70 percent of our undergraduates come from the top two quintiles.

Where's the protest about that? There's lots of talk about the poor racial climate at rich colleges these days, but much less about the yawning economic inequalities outside of them. We hear much more about "white privilege" than we do about the privileges enjoyed by anyone - of any race - who goes to an expensive private university.

Let's be clear: The racial problems are real. According to the recent Penn report, more than half of black students and nearly half of Hispanics said that there was "a hostile environment toward people of color" on campus. More than half of black and white students said they felt discussions about race were hostile as well. And 90 percent of students agreed with the statement that "ethnic groups stick with their own" at Penn.

Outside of the elite colleges, however, students have bigger things to worry about. Forty percent of American undergraduates are over 25 years old, a quarter are parents, half work at least part-time, and three-quarters live off campus. They're much more concerned about bread-and-butter questions than racial ones.

During the "Occupy" protests in 2011, for example, students at community colleges and nonselective four-year schools walked out of class to denounce tuition hikes. More recently, they have protested their schools' cozy agreements with credit card companies that allegedly enrich the colleges even as they fleece individual borrowers.

To be sure, some of the elite-college demonstrations have focused on economic inequality as well. During the November 2015 protests, for example, several groups of students called on their institutions to raise wages for custodial staff. Others demanded that universities provide medical care and other services to needy citizens in adjoining communities.

For the most part, however, the rich-school protests have focused on the well-being of their well-heeled clientele. Just like the rest of us, students worry first and foremost about themselves. But college should also make us look outside of our particular circumstances, so we learn about the wider world.

What if students at our elite schools joined hands to push for greater financial assistance for students in need? That would mean putting pressure on state governments, which have slashed aid to higher education over the past two decades. And it would mean fighting to protect federal loans from President-elect Donald Trump, who has threatened to return them to private lenders.

In one of his least-heralded achievements, President Obama made the federal government - not private banks - into the provider of student loans. Returning the loans to the private sector would boost payments for borrowers by anywhere from 23 percent to 78 percent, according to a recent study by the Center for American Progress. That would place an even greater debt burden upon America's students, who already owe more than $1 trillion.

Most of all, students should demand that their own institutions redouble their efforts to recruit from America's poorest communities. Thousands of academically qualified low-income students never consider attending an elite university, because they assume they couldn't get in or they couldn't afford it. Our current crop of students could help remedy that, by visiting underprivileged schools to assist and encourage new applicants.

The recent report about Penn - which is known for its high-pressure atmosphere - suggests that students from different races and ethnicities unite to build a "healthy campus life." But a healthier move would be to look beyond the campus, to the lives of people who are less fortunate. The best way to create a common culture is to think about those outside of it.