The benefits of diversity in higher education

A number of scholars argue that diversity can have a “transformative effect” on colleges and universities, influencing “who is taught, what is taught, and who teaches” (Milem, 2003, p. 145; Chang, 1999).  From a legal perspective, promoting diversity on campus has been widely considered a compelling state interest of public colleges and universities since Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in the seminal 1978 Bakke decision.  As a result of Bakke, race conscious admissions policies were considered constitutional provided they were narrowly tailored and could withstand a strict scrutiny review.  In Bakke, as well as Grutter and Gratz, the use of research to support the benefits of diversity was important in the final decisions. For today’s post, I will review the literature in support of diversity in higher education.

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Two significant bodies of the literature are important to understanding the educational benefits of diversity.  The first area examines the ways in which institutions promote engagement with diversity through programmatic and curricular efforts.  A second area explores the interactions between students that largely occur without direct institutional influence and, often, outside the classroom.

An institutional commitment to diversity and the fostering of an ethos of inclusion may hold powerful influence over students.

Whitt, Edison, Pascarella, Terenzini, and Nora (2001) contend that simply accepting students and creating structural or statistical diversity does not always produce appreciable educational benefits: creating a campus climate supportive of students from diverse backgrounds and views is essential and can improve the openness of students to perspectives different from their own.

This type of environment assists in achieving the advantages of diversity on college and university campuses.  The literature in support of diversity also supports linkages between academic benefits such as improved problem solving skills and an increase of diversity within the classroom (Gurin, 1999; Terenzini, Cabrera, Colbeck, Bjorklund, and Parente, 2001).

Studies show that the benefits can exist across all races and ethnicities, not simply those minorities whose race may have been a factor during their application for admission to the institution.

Milem’s (2003) work shows that majority students with no previous direct exposure to minority peers gain the most from diversity in the classroom.

The historical argument in support of affirmative action efforts in college admissions, which has always been problematic for many, is the ability to remedy past discrimination.  The classroom education benefits rationale moves the debate away from past discrimination to the current tangible advantages of diversity.

Chang (1999) found an additional benefit of diversity to higher education institutions to be the positive effect on student retention.  Improving retention is vital to colleges and universities particularly in the modern era of accountability.

This finding is significant to supporting diversity in admissions; increased amounts of structural diversity on campus leads to increasing levels of student retention.

The academic mission and aims of higher education in admitting, retaining, and producing highly successful graduates does not simply support the need for a diverse student population for social justice reasons — though social justice is critical to the historical role of higher education as a vehicle for social mobility in the United States.

The research literature in support of diversity also supports a significant quantity and quality of interaction (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002).

The addition of a diversity course requirement in the undergraduate general education curriculum and the broader expansion of multicultural elements in university courses have changed the classroom experience of today’s college students (Chang, 2002).

As important as the curricular additions are to expanding an appreciation of diversity, the role of students’ experiences outside the classroom influences their development both academically and socially (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991).

These experiences take place in a variety of settings across campus, from interactions in the residence halls to conversations in the cafeteria to athletic competition on the intramural field.

As Piaget’s (1965) work demonstrates, different perspectives are important for intellectual and moral development.  Without a variety of views and backgrounds on campus, students are not presented with challenges to their current understandings or the limitations of their viewpoints.

The cognitive development that occurs when meeting, discussing, and interacting with difference is a major component to the development necessary to function in an increasingly global society.

Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin (2002) add a much needed theoretical rationale to diversity research.  They expand on the growing body of literature regarding the benefits of education by considering statistical data from an institutional and national longitudinal study to demonstrate the importance of diverse populations on campus.

The research literature on the educational benefits of diversity is derived from different methodological approaches and data sources (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002).

The results of these studies demonstrate the potential benefits to students, faculty, and institutions.

Much of the historical debate surrounding affirmative action and race conscious admissions policies has centered on anecdotal or poorly validated rationales on both sides.

Research particularly over the last ten years provided sound data for the University of Michigan and its supporters to argue the benefits of diversity.

Excerpt from The Uses of Data in Affirmative Action Litigation coauthored with John Roth