Campus Diversity and Birds of a Feather: How significant is student diversity to current and prospective students?
April 2, 2007
Howard and Matthew Greene
Two seemingly basic principles of human dynamics, "birds of a feather flock together" and "opposites attract one another," in fact represent a highly complex issue for college-bound students and institutions of higher ed. Diversification of college campuses through proactive recruiting and intentional admissions policies has been the most protracted, sensitive, and, in some circles, inflammatory issue confronting administrators in recent years.
Our purpose here is not to address the complex legal and political elements of the affirmative action debate. We do, however, want to discuss the significance of student diversification to present and prospective students.
We find that the vast majority of students contemplating the rite of passage of leaving home to undertake the college experience encapsulate one of their primary goals in today's vernacular as "wanting to get a life." Both young men and women express a sincere desire to engage with peers of different backgrounds, interests, and tastes after living all of their young lives in small towns, suburbs, or even cities where they have attended the same schools with the same fellow students.
Call this desire a function of opposites attracting one another. On the other hand, what young adult who is most likely leaving home to live in a new and strange environment would not want to find a flock of similar friends?
With this tension at work between two competing forces, what role should college admissions play in presenting their college community to prospective students? We believe rather strongly from our conversations with a continuous stream of high school and college students that they comprehend the value of experiencing life in and out of the classroom with a diverse and varied community of peers.
In typical fashion, for example, a young woman who was actively engaged in a community outreach program sponsored by her church youth group wrote the following: "This group is fulfilling because it is diverse in all ways: It's welcoming, and it does not make skin-deep assumptions about people. I would like to go to a college that has a politically and socially aware student body, a sense of community, and a true mix of student types."
Another high school senior wrote that he was applying to certain colleges because he found on his visits to campuses, as he talked to undergraduates in the dorms and on the soccer teams, that there was a far greater range of students in terms of their geographic, high school, and, he sensed, socio-economic backgrounds. He indicated that this was one of the best features of his years of participation in competitive school athletics.
These students reflect the concerns and aspirations of so many contemporary college-bound young men and women. They may not have read The World Is Flat or have understood the implications of globalization they will have to contend with in time, but they definitely yearn to get that life they have dreamed of through exposure to new ideas, people, and activities. They understand that America and the larger world is increasingly, if not a true melting pot, an environment that is far more diversified and heterogeneous than that which they have experienced to date.
This potential to mix with opposites can represent one of the major attractions for the more socially, emotionally, and intellectually mature student. Those students who are not yet aware of or interested in gaining such exposure and understanding surely will profit from living in a mixed setting in college. We pin our hopes on the expectation that while some might wish more to flock with peers with the same interests and backgrounds only, they will over time broaden their attitudes and ideas and seek out a mixed community of ideas and individuals.
THE TIPPING POINT
We seek to clarify the meaning of campus diversity as we counsel with students. A diverse community represents much more than racial or ethnic diversity. Other important aspects are socio-economic, geographic, international, intellectual, artistic, athletic, personality-based, political, gender-based, and sexual orientation-based.
Most parents and students tell us that a diverse community is one of the most important college evaluation criteria today. This reflects the kind and quality of students a particular college is able to attract and thus the kind and quality of education they will receive. A community comprised of students with a wide range of individual interests and talents, commitments and values, dedication to their respective fields of study, backgrounds, perspectives, and personalities fosters intellectual growth and social awareness beyond anything students will have experienced prior to their college life.
Oh yes, there is still that matter of flocking together that's so important to these future collegians. We believe all institutional leaders must work toward achieving a balance of representative types, in contrast to a one-dimensional social and intellectual environment that can make it nearly impossible for a broad representation of individuals to feel at home. We know some colleges have created, intentionally or not, such an imbalanced community that they have lost the mix that would ensure a broadening experience for their students. We think here of Malcolm Gladwell's concept of "the tipping point," which he describes in his book of the same name.
Students are very alert to colleges that have crossed or seem to be crossing a tipping point. This could happen in terms of male/female parity, liberal to conservative ideology, religious orthodoxy, or racial or ethnic composition, for example.
Is there a place in America for IHEs that adopt a more one-dimensional stance or profile along one of the identifying factors we mention above? Surely there is, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, women's colleges, some remaining men's colleges, colleges with a strong religious affiliation and program, military academies, and institutions with more "liberal" or "alternative" educational and social approaches. That's the beauty of the American higher educational system: There is likely to be a choice, indeed more than one choice, for any qualified student.
We do find that most college applicants, and most mainstream institutions, do in any event prefer a more balanced and diverse college environment.
WHAT SORT OF DIVERSITY?
We challenge college representatives to articulate clearly and sincerely what they mean by a diverse community and how this will enhance the development of every individual on campus. Simply using the term "diversity" is frequently interpreted as code for recruiting more students of color, which does not reflect the needs and the desires of the majority of college men and women, including those students of color.
We maintain a file of the best examples of college profiles we receive from a variety of IHEs: small liberal arts colleges like Kenyon (Ohio), Ivy League schools like Dartmouth, large public universities like the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During our meetings with students we will often use these to illustrate not only the admissions profile and requirements for entering students but also the current composition of the student body.
The best profiles include extensive information on: home state; grades and SAT or ACT scores; how many took calculus, or four years of foreign language; how many were Eagle Scouts or Girl Scout award earners; how many were National Merit Scholars or National Achievement participants; which had unique or peculiar major interests (i.e., ballooning, stamp collecting, bobsledding); how many applied, how many were admitted, and how many males and females were matriculated; how many are legacies; how many are internationals, and where they're from; how many were valedictorians or salutatorians, and other class rank data; their racial and ethnic backgrounds; and their intended majors.
Profiles are also helpful when they point out special admission programs and unique or typical college academic and extracurricular programs available to students at the school. Students want to find themselves, and their flock, in these profiles; they also want to be excited by the others they would find themselves among.
As the composition of America's population now tops 300 million people of increasingly diverse cultural, ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, college graduates will need more than their parents did the skills and the desire to deal with individuals who represent a wide array of cultural, ethnic, economic, and religious backgrounds and perspectives.
No credible institution that claims to prepare our greatest natural resource-young men and women of talent and purpose-for future moral, political, and economic leadership should apologize or waver in its determination to expose its entire community to the diversity of which we speak here.
You can assist the young men and women who are considering your institution by reaffirming that it is perfectly fine to look for that flock of peers that appear to have similar feathers initially, and that in time, they will be attracted to the opposite types on campus. When they get to campus, it will take effort to help those types come together and interact successfully, but that is a story for another day.