How Universities Are Becoming More Diverse

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Diversity is the representation of all our varied identities and differences (race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, tribe, caste, socioeconomic status, thinking and communication styles, etc.) collectively and as individuals.

“Diversity” is a word that we often see associated with higher education. Colleges proudly show their diverse, talented, and qualified student bodies. Promoting diversity in colleges and universities can make discussing inclusive ideas easier for students and provide them with a more well-rounded outlook, resulting in personal and professional benefits.

A 2020 study found that more than 50% of college graduates will be people of color by 2036. Additionally, a McKinsey analysis showed that highly research-intensive institutions have publicly shared plans or aspirations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

While higher education has made great efforts to promote diversity on a more meaningful level, there is still a ways to go before the potential for on-campus diversity can be fully realized.

Why Diversity in Higher Education Matters

The U.S. Department of Education’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access. And integral to furthering that mission is supporting efforts to create diverse and welcoming campus communities for all students.

The participation of underrepresented students of color decreases at multiple points across the higher education pipeline, including application, admission, enrollment, persistence, and completion. 

A smaller proportion of black or Hispanic high school graduates than white graduates enroll in college, and more than 80% of Hispanic, black, and Asian students have a gap between their financial needs and grants and scholarships, compared to 71% of white undergraduate students. 

Moreover, degree completion rates are lower amongst black and Hispanic students than among white and Asian students. Nearly half of the Asian students who enrolled in postsecondary education complete a bachelor’s degree, compared with fewer than one in five Hispanic and about one in five black students.

Diversity in higher education matters. Firstly, it enriches the educational experience. We learn from those whose experiences, beliefs, and perspectives are different from our own, and these lessons can be taught best in a richly diverse, intellectual, and social environment.

Diverse surroundings also promote personal growth and foster mutual respect and teamwork. Diversity challenges stereotyped preconceptions, encourages critical thinking, and helps students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds.

Ultimately, studies show that diversity in education, particularly on college campuses, improves intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship, cultural engagement, and academic skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing – for students of all races. 

Interacting with diverse peers outside a classroom setting directly benefits students, making them better scholars, thinkers, and citizens.

“Diversity in the student population of our universities is important because, for many college students, undergrad is the first time they interact with those who may be dissimilar to them. The notion here is that high-quality interactions under conditions in which the individuals share a goal may promote positive intergroup relations and reduce intergroup tensions. This is referred to as the "contact hypothesis,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Student Select AI in a recent interview.

“When we interact with our peers who may not look like us or think like us in situations with a shared purpose (e.g., a college classroom), we suddenly have common ground and are more likely to be open to alternative perspectives,” Campion concluded. 

Higher Education Diversifies Its Student Bodies

Colleges and universities can be ground zero for a deeper, more concrete approach to understanding diversity. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the college enrollment rates of 18- to 24-year-olds, by race/ethnicity, in 2019 were:

Dating back to 1900, colleges and universities attempted to diversify their campuses through segregation-based strategies

For example, religion-focused universities reached out to specific immigrant populations, and prestigious universities designed tactics to help them control on-campus diversity. One of these tactics was to pepper the enrollment process with questions or strategies designed to make students inadvertently reveal information about their race, religion, or ethnicity. 

Notably, a recent study conducted by Nicole Stephens, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, Rebecca M. Carey, a former Kellogg postdoctoral student, Sarah S. M. Townsend at the University of Southern California, and MarYam G. Hamedani at Stanford, sought to explore the diversity of people’s actual interactions at American universities. 

They recruited university students to provide detailed accounts of their daily social interactions and how those interactions left them feeling. 

The results show that even when diverse interactions were possible, people didn’t take full advantage of that diversity. And when students interacted with other students of a different race, certain groups were especially likely to gravitate toward people like themselves.

But, the data also showed that these campus interactions made underrepresented students feel more like they belonged on campus and allowed them to acquire “cultural capital,” an understanding of the unwritten rules that often dictate who succeeds and who fails.

Therefore, Stephens recommended that universities group students randomly in dorms or class projects rather than giving them the green light to choose roommates or project partners. This move counteracts the pull of homophily.

“We need to think about how to intentionally create systems to ensure that people are actually interacting across differences and have the potential to benefit from those differences,” she said. 

And in an effort to change the stereotype, a recent McKinsey analysis, “Racial and Ethnic Equity in U.S. Higher Education,” found that more than 130 research institutions have publicly shared plans or aspirations to diversify their student bodies and build inclusive communities where people of color have access to the same resources as white students and feel like they belong.

Researchers noted that colleges are beginning to reflect on their own racist history and campus culture, evaluate their student-recruitment strategies, and invest more in diversity efforts. These efforts include expanding dual-enrollment programs, forgiving student debts, and partnering with minority-serving institutions.

For example, Johns Hopkins University recently eliminated its legacy admissions to create more seats for people of color. While the University of Massachusetts decided to reserve 20% of its hiring budget for recruiting and retaining faculty members from historically marginalized groups.

These movements, coupled with the robust growth of collegiate options in the postwar era, could lead to more possibilities for diverse campus experiences.

Diversity in higher education matters. It enriches students’ educational experience, promotes personal growth, fosters teamwork, and creates better scholars, thinkers, and overall citizens.


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