When a state bars affirmative action, as California did in 1996 with Proposition 209, what happens to student interactions at public universities? Does the debate focus so much attention on race that students retreat to their own worlds?
A new study of the University of California system coming from the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley portrays a generally healthy picture of campus life from the standpoint of interaction among different demographic groups. Students surveyed also overwhelmingly reported feeling a sense of belonging, although black students -- whose numbers at UC's most competitive campuses have waned -- gave the lowest scores in this category.
The report , "Does Diversity Matter in the Education Process? An Exploration of Student Interactions by Wealth, Religion, Politics, Race, Ethnicity and Immigrant Status at the University of California," surveyed nearly 58,000 students from the eight California campuses with undergraduate programs.
Steve Chatman, the report's author and project director of the Student Experience in the Research University Project/University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey, described the system's demographic makeup this way:
"When viewed from the perspective of higher education nationally, the diversity among the University of California student population is striking," he wrote in the report. "The university is richly and remarkably diverse by most standards. ... The University does suffer from a proportional deficit in that it enrolls fewer African Americans and Hispanics than would be expected from population demographics."
Chatman said there's a "surprising lack of evidence" supporting diversity in race, religion, socioeconomic status and political viewpoint as a compelling interest for public higher education, as well as "little direct evidence cited that interpersonal relationships in college are a necessary or sufficient condition for development of the listed skills or that the skills were actually developed.”
That's what he wants his report to illustrate. It concludes that the generally healthy level of conversation that takes places among students of different demographic groups increases understanding on campuses.
The students were asked to self-report how frequently they developed a better understanding of a significantly different viewpoint because the other person in the conversation had different religious or political views, or was of a different nationality, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. (The report notes that students were not reporting that they changed their point of view, only that they better understood the viewpoint of others.)
Student responses to these questions provide "useful, if soft, evidence of diversity benefits,” the study points out.
Sixty percent of students reported frequent discussions about race, ethnicity and nationality -- the most common topics of conversation. Chatman said that's not surprising, given that those are the most visible demographic differences. More than 40 percent of students said their understanding of others was often improved through personal interactions with students who differed from them in socioeconomic status, religion and politics.
In general, students from smaller demographic groups reported being more likely to have these frequent, informative conversations with those in other groups. Black students, for instance, who represented 1,400 out of the 58,000 students surveyed, reported the highest levels of interactions (73 percent) that resulted in understanding another's point of view. Hispanic students (68 percent) were second on the list.
Students who were foreign-born or first-generation Americans were more likely than their counterparts to report having these type of interactions. Likewise, self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were more likely to go outside their group to have conversations, which is intuitive, the report notes, given the dearth of these students on some campuses.
On the national scale, the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement  showed that about one-fourth of students say they "very often" had a serious conversation with students who are "very different" from them in terms of religious beliefs, political opinions or personal values, race or ethnicity; and about half said that takes place at least "often."
The same holds true for the question of whether colleges emphasize contact among people of different backgrounds.
Chatman said one reason the UC numbers reflect a somewhat different reality is that there are more full-time students in the system likely to spend significant time on campus, live in dorms and have to go out of their way not to come across people of different backgrounds.
Put the two sources together and the information is "reasonably encouraging," said Alexander McCormick, director of NSSE. A slight majority of students surveyed in NSSE reported having frequent interactions across groups, and among the California students who reported having conversations frequently, many said they lead to richer, deeper understanding.
On the question of belonging, low-income students in the UC system were least likely to say they fit in. Second on that list: the most wealthy students. But more than three-fourths of all students reported belonging.
Among religious groups, Muslim and Jewish students reported the highest levels of feeling that they belong. Just under 75 percent of black students agreed with that sentiment, which was under the overall average. The report notes that there was a "dramatic increase" in the percentage of black students saying they belonged when the overall black population was more than 5 percent on a given campus.
Black students make up 3 percent of the university's overall population, but on one campus (which the report doesn't name) where the total is roughly 6 percent, black students reported belonging at a higher rate than the general population.
“This result suggests that the UC's composition of African American students should at least be tripled," Chatman said in the report.
He said the study also shows that the oft-cited necessary critical mass of black students on a given campus might be smaller than has been suggested -- as low as 5 to 10 percent could make a significant difference in student perception. "That's encouraging," he said, "because it's more attainable."
Campus climate also plays a role, Chatman said. "You can't assume because you have a mix of students, you'll have a fixed level of interaction."
His hope is that college leaders talk about diversity beyond race, but to also include socioeconomic status, religion and other factors. "Overall, the research suggests there's a compelling interest in admitting students who reflect diverse characteristics," he said.