Who in higher education hasn't heard that students should participate in extracurricular activities to "find themselves"? But what if they don't? Blake R. Silver spent a year at a university he does not name, calling it East State University, to investigate. Silver found that white males tend to gain the most from extracurriculars and that few students knew how to engage in the activities. The results of his research are in The Cost of Inclusion: How Student Conformity Leads to Inequality on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press).
Silver, an assistant professor of sociology at George Mason University and director of data analytics and assessment in George Mason's Honors College, responded to questions about his book via email.
Q: How did you pick "East State University"? Do you think ESU is typical of higher education?
A: Going into this project, I was eager to look beyond the small segment of the college landscape featured in most research on higher education. Where many existing studies focus on highly selective, elite and predominantly white institutions, East State University is different in several important ways. The university is a broad-access public institution, with an acceptance rate of approximately 80 percent and a diverse student body. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduates identify with a racial or ethnic minority group, and about 40 percent are part of the first generation in their families to attend a four-year college or university.
In addition to speaking to an understudied segment of the higher education landscape, selecting ESU as a research site allowed me to study an institution that is more representative of contemporary higher education. In fact, the year I began this research, four-year public colleges and universities in the U.S. enrolled over seven million students, making them the largest sector of higher education. And notably, most of these four-year public institutions, like ESU, are accessible rather than elite or highly selective. In the book, I suggest that as college attendance increasingly becomes assumed for broad populations of high school students, accessible public institutions like ESU represent both the present and future of higher education.
Q: Did you portray yourself as a researcher or a student? How did you navigate the ethical issues involved?
A: Throughout the project, I worked to make sure students were aware of my role as a researcher. Navigating the ethics of this study began early with outreach to the student communities I eventually joined as a participant-observer. In August of 2016, I emailed the leaders of several groups, introducing myself and my project. Three extracurricular outlets invited me to join for their first meetings of the year, where I had the opportunity to describe the study to members and answer questions about my role. Additionally, over the course of the academic year, I worked to ensure that students remained aware of my role and their participation in this research by regularly discussing the project with each group. Importantly, participants were also given the option to withdraw from the study or have specific interactions excluded from my field notes. In the end, however, I found that the students not only appeared comfortable with my presence, but they were also incredibly generous in sharing their time and perspectives with a researcher.
Q: The argument that extracurriculars will help students "find themselves" is widespread. What's wrong with that argument?
A: In principle, involvement on campus holds great potential to support growth and development for college students. In practice, this potential often goes unrealized. The problem with traditional claims about the value of extracurriculars is that these claims frequently lead to the assumption that providing settings for student involvement is sufficient to ensure positive experiences and outcomes. My research for The Cost of Inclusion gave me an opportunity to follow the day-to-day activities of nearly 100 college students within a living-learning community, a club sports team and a student organization focused on service. The students invited me to formal meetings, casual hangouts, athletic competitions and volunteer events. As a believer in the potential of higher education to shape society for the better, I was pleased to see students connecting with others of different backgrounds, political affiliations, academic interests and gender, racial and ethnic identities. Yet, I also became alarmed. Rather than growing in ways that would support them in a diverse democratic society, these youth felt a powerful pressure to conform.
In the book, I describe how extracurricular involvement in its current form serves to perpetuate inequality rather than provide learning opportunities. Research shows that most students enter higher education after growing up in highly homogeneous neighborhoods and attending racially segregated K-12 schools. Coming from these settings, many students have yet to learn productive strategies for engaging with peers across socio-demographic difference. In the absence of guidance from colleges and universities about how to build equitable communities, students often struggled. Most fell back on their existing cultural tools, relying on stereotypes to engage with one another and expecting peers to conform to those stereotypes. In the end, with minimal support from university personnel, few students experienced the growth and development promised by higher education.
Q: How does this play out for student groups that are for minority ethnic students, or gay students?
A: The three main communities involved in this project were diverse extracurricular outlets focused on interests rather than shared socio-demographic characteristics. However, I also conducted 80 interviews with first-year students in order to understand experiences in a broader range of outlets. The findings of those interviews suggest that identity-based communities have potential to reshape students’ experiences with inclusion on campus. For example, in the final chapter of the book, I describe how a small number of students who joined communities for racial and ethnic minority students in tandem with other extracurricular outlets were able to draw on the support of those identity-based communities to navigate marginalizing experiences elsewhere on campus. Having a community of peers who understood the prevalence and impact of racism facilitated some students’ abilities to resist expectations for stereotypical self-presentation. This is a preliminary finding, based on a small number of students who did not conform to the broader patterns described in this book. Nonetheless, this insight joins a growing literature exploring how identity-based organizations might play a role in combating inequality on campus.
Q: Why are white men most likely to find success in other extracurriculars?
A: One of the findings unearthed by The Cost of Inclusion is that white men frequently have an easier time acquiring a durable sense of belonging in extracurricular outlets than their peers who identify as women or racial and ethnic minority students. In the extracurricular settings I observed, white men were able to draw from raced and gendered assumptions about authority to take on styles of self-presentation that positioned them as group leaders or intellectuals. In the process, they became central, highly valued members of these groups, and the perception that they were appreciated by peers cultivated feelings of belonging.
Even white men who initially took on more reserved styles of self-presentation were frequently elevated to positions of authority by their peers. In the book I describe Kyle (a pseudonym), a white man who joined a living-learning community at ESU and initially presented as a reserved follower. Over time, however, his peers began to encourage him to speak more. Kyle described a growing sense that other members were interested in hearing his ideas, and he adopted an identity as an intellectual. I describe this phenomenon as centripetal elevation, whereby white men benefited from the deference and mentorship of peers who looked to them for direction or insight. The result was a significant disparity in students’ social and emotional experiences in extracurricular outlets. While women and racial/ethnic minority students frequently experienced a limited or contingent sense of belonging, most white men came to feel included in a variety of extracurricular settings.
Q: What should colleges do about the issues raised in your book?
A: The findings presented in The Cost of Inclusion are in many ways a call for action for colleges and universities. The data underscore the problems with laissez-faire approaches to student involvement beyond the classroom, where colleges provide facilities and funding for students to become socially engaged without offering guidance for building student communities. Although student affairs personnel are often formally designated with responsibility for extracurricular settings, resource constraints and external pressures often work against their mission. These dynamics, which I describe in greater detail in the book, produce a situation at many colleges where students do not have access to sufficient structure and support beyond the classroom.
Fortunately, there are opportunities to remedy this situation. Faculty involvement outside the classroom is one way to equip young people with tools for engaging with diversity on campus. Partnerships between professors and student affairs practitioners could bring curricular frameworks to the social realm of college, offering models for student engagement that extend beyond the imperative to fit in and make friends. These partnerships could build on existing resources such as faculty-in-residence programs for living-learning communities or faculty mentors for student organizations. Another strategy might involve developing challenge-based programs for students to explore new approaches to peer interactions. Such efforts could equip students with tools to engage with one another across differences without resorting to stereotypes. In short, rather than leaving students to their own devices, institutions can do more to build inclusive communities in higher education.