What Does It Really Mean to Increase Diversity on College Campuses? [Opinion]

While most colleges have a common goal of increasing diversity on campus, there are a variety of ways to do so. Learn which programs and initiatives are most effective.

Diversity has been a buzzword in higher education for the past 10–15 years. Even though most colleges recognize the importance of having a student body that represents a variety of voices and perspectives, creating a diverse campus remains a challenge for many institutions.

I’ve been involved with higher education in a variety of ways: I’ve been an undergraduate student, admissions counselor, academic advisor, and graduate student. Through these experiences, I’ve learned a lot about the institutional quest to achieve diversity. I have seen colleges use scholarships, academic programs, and the expansion of recruitment to create a more diverse student body. I have also seen attempts to engage students in conversations about diversity in the classroom and through student affairs programming. Some institutions require that students take a mandatory course on diversity as part of their graduation requirements. There are also mixers and extracurricular programming that attempt to foster a campus environment conducive to celebrating and discussing different identities.

Defining Diversity

What diversity means can vary from institution to institution. As a result, the diversity goals of each campus vary as well. One institution may feel that an increase in international students will increase its diversity, whereas another institution may feel that an increase in low-income students will diversify its student population. Each college’s goals push the direction of the diversity conversation on campuses, and ultimately the approaches taken to reach those goals.

The campuses that tend to be the most successful at creating and supporting a diverse community are those that see this commitment as a campus-wide effort and genuine part of the institutional identity. When diversity is seen as a box to check off rather than a thread in the fabric of an institution, it tends to be treated as a task to accomplish and not a means to create a particular type of community. A campus that is sincerely attempting to instantiate diversity will have diverse administrators, faculty, and staff, along with the student body. Furthermore, diversity will not be limited to the boundaries of race. Campuses that are serious about achieving diversity make efforts to include class, gender, regionality, sexual orientation, and religion among their considerations.

What Doesn’t Work

In order to reach this goal, institutions must have both short- and long-term plans in place. For institutions that have lacked diversity for extended periods of time, changing the campus culture will take time, resources, and a lot of communication. If an institution wants to rise to excellence, however, it will not shy away from the commitment.

I have often seen campuses fall short on their diversity initiatives by being too broad in their approach or simply not doing enough to implement them. Some campuses may design diversity initiatives that are too general and do not speak to the unique needs of various sectors. Particular groups have particular needs and thrive in certain environments, which college administrators ought to acknowledge. Campus constituents cannot be treated as if they are all the same.

Other times, institutions will try to pigeonhole a particular identity, forgetting that we are all an intersection of identities. Remembering that diversity is about celebrating the way individuals come together does not mean stripping them of their uniqueness by assuming each person should fit into a single, specific category. Nor does it mean that constituents must pick one role and satisfy said role. Institutions cannot write policies for every sector of persons on a campus, nor should they. When administrators plan to increase diversity on campus, however, various voices should be at the table so that a multitude of perspectives and additions are made.

To take it a step further, colleges cannot simply add a diversity initiative to their mission statement or strategic plan without serious thought about the implementation across the full campus. Everyone from admissions, to deans, to hiring departments, to students, to staff, to administrators should be actively working to aid in the creation of a diverse campus. If this is not the case, then mission statements and strategic plans become nothing more than fancy words to back up an attempt at achieving a superficial structural diversity.

Suggestions for Students

Prospective students who prioritize diversity at their future college should be sure to ask questions and do research on each institution that they are interested in. Some questions to consider asking include:

  • What programs, organizations, and initiatives are in place to support and celebrate students of color (or any identity that you deem important)?

  • Does the faculty and university leadership represent different identities and backgrounds?

  • Have there been past racial/homophobic/religiously intolerant instances on campus? If so, how were they addressed by the university?

  • How are issues of diversity integrated into the classroom?

  • Do faculty and staff participate in safe space training?

You should also attempt to visit the campus during the regular academic year, when students are in classes and on campus. Get a feel for the school and student body. Does the everyday campus look like what the marketing materials communicate? Check with your department of interest to see if you can sit in on a class. Have conversations with different students and ask them about the campus climate.

All of these strategies can help in choosing a college that not only embraces diversity, but will fit well with you, your goals, your values, and your personality. Celebrating diversity should never be just a part of a college’s mission statement. It should be a mission in action.

For further insight, check out another Noodle Expert's ideas about how colleges can foster inclusion on campus

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