December 22, 2011

Diversity: it's not just an admissions issue anymore

The Obama administration’s new call for universities to increase diversity on campus is probably a welcome one for many schools. After years of court battles over state university admissions policies, centered on the University of Michigan, colleges and universities now have greater clarity about which levers they’re allowed to pull to attract a more ethnically diverse pool of applicants. But what happens when those more diverse classes get to campus?

Much research has been done on the benefits of being in school with a more diverse group of peers. For example, a recent study discussed in the book How College Affects Students notes that exposure to fellow students of diverse backgrounds is one of the key factors influencing whether freshmen return for their sophomore year and whether their experience improves their critical thinking skills. Think about that: more diverse classmates and dorm-mates leads to a more positive, successful undergrad experience.

And our own research for highly selective universities and grad schools has shown that prospects value diversity and take it into consideration when deciding which schools to apply to. When it comes to attracting underrepresented minorities, it certainly helps when they see people who look like them on campus, ideally both students and professors.

That research is echoed in the new guidelines, which were issued jointly by attorney general Eric Holder and education secretary Arne Duncan. "Diverse learning environments," says Holder in the accompanying press release, “promote development of analytical skills, dismantle stereotypes, and prepare students to succeed in an increasingly interconnected world.”

All true. I’m as strong a believer as anyone that greater diversity along all kinds of dimensions — racial, gender, socio-economic, geographic, attitudinal — in higher education is a good thing. What schools need to realize, though, is that with that greater diversity comes a greater need for support for those new members of the student body. Some of our research has shown that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as those who are the first generation in their family to attend college, struggle with the demands and format of postsecondary education more than other students do. They’re more likely to have jobs, work more hours, and be less involved in co-curricular activities. In one study, we found that they needed more help from their advisors that other students did — but were less likely to seek out that help. These diverse newcomers can benefit from greater support, whether academic, co-curricular or social, to help them navigate the unfamiliar landscape.

Yet many schools don’t invest in such support programs, in part because they are not aware of those needs and in part because they don’t want to stereotype their new arrivals or treat them differently on the basis of ethnicity. The ideal is a melting pot, whether or not it actually exists.

Of course, those support programs are also an additional expense for the schools. So that well-intentioned reluctance to engage in anything like profiling may also mask a reluctance to spend more on student-life and academic counseling.

Whatever its causes, that reluctance is a shame. If a school embraces increased diversity as a strategic goal, it ought to carry that strategy through to the  students it affects, by acknowledging and meeting their unique needs. It’s also a good long-term decision: supporting underrepresented minorities and first-generation students would likely contribute to higher retention and graduation rates, and that means stronger rankings and better applicant pools. It may be an additional expense, but it makes both ethical and academic sense.

Does your institution support diversity just at the admissions stage, or throughout the student experience?
 



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