Affirmative action/racial preferences

A New Manhattan Project

The seemingly endless debates about the pros and cons of race-based affirmative action point to two essential conclusions. First, without denying the relevance of moral or philosophical arguments and legal principles, it is important to confront claims with empirical evidence. This is what we do in our new book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal — a study of how students’ racial and social class backgrounds are intimately intertwined with the selective college experience. We find, for instance, that:

  • Compared to white applicants at selective private colleges and universities, black applicants receive an admission boost that is equivalent to 310 SAT points, measured on an all-other-things-equal basis. The boost for Hispanic candidates is equal on average to 130 SAT points. Asian applicants face a 140 point SAT disadvantage.
  • "Descendant" black applicants (those who are in the fourth-or-higher immigrant generation and single race — to a first approximation, the descendants of the American slave population) are admitted to selective colleges at significantly higher rates than "vanguard" black candidates (students who are multiracial and/or first- or second-generation immigrants). Even so, vanguards make up close to 60 percent of all black students on private college campuses and nearly 25 percent at public universities. Vanguards represent even larger shares of black applicant pools.
  • We find evidence for and against a "mismatch" hypothesis. Students who are the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action are more likely to graduate, more likely to enroll in professional or graduate schools, and more likely to have higher lifetime incomes if they attend a more selective college. However, class rank at college graduation for a given student is likely to decline as college selectivity goes up. On balance, we conclude that a higher graduation rate and the other advantages of attending a more selective institution more than outweigh the potential disadvantages of lower class rank at graduation.
  • Doing away with racial preferences for underrepresented minority students would substantially reduce the number of such students at selective colleges. No admission policy that we have examined is able to replicate underrepresented minority student shares at selective universities if affirmative action is eliminated. This includes policies that substitute class-based for race-based affirmative action.

A second and more important conclusion is that debating the relative merits of affirmative action deflects attention away from something much more fundamental — America’s racial gap in academic achievement. Fixing the achievement gap would obviate the need for affirmative action to create racially diverse campuses. This gap is observed in the pre-college academic records of applicants in our study, and it persists among first-year students. For instance, the average SAT score among entering Asian students in the sample of competitive colleges we studied is 225 points higher (on a 1600-point scale) than the average for black students. More than three-quarters of Asian students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class, in contrast to less than one-half of black students. Academic performance in college shows similar racial disparities, whether it is measured by six-year graduation rates or by class rank.

What we see at selective colleges and universities is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of a much broader societal phenomenon. Racial gaps in academic skills and knowledge begin to develop soon after birth. They are reflected initially in children’s inventories of vocabulary words and later in tests of math and reading. By the time of kindergarten entry, black children lag about one year behind whites. Gaps continue to grow throughout the elementary and secondary school years in a pattern of cumulative advantage and disadvantage. By 12th grade, black students on average have fallen roughly four years behind whites. Hispanic students perform slightly better than blacks but not nearly at the level of white and Asian students. The likelihood of repeating a grade, lower-track placement in high school, and graduating high school are differentiated by race in the same way. Social class differences account for some of these gaps, but the gaps remain when income and other measures of socioeconomic status are held constant.

A skeptic might reasonably ask: "How much does this really matter?" For one thing, the racial academic performance gap lies at the heart of many adult forms of social and economic inequality. What starts off as a racial gap in school readiness quickly becomes an academic achievement gap, which is followed by a graduation gap, a labor-market skills gap, a wage gap, and eventually a poverty gap. The chain of cumulative causation extends well into adulthood. Racial gaps in academic accomplishment have been linked to racial differences in educational attainment, crime, health, and family structure. There is every reason to believe that these differences in adult outcomes would be reduced if a way could be found to narrow racial performance gaps among children and adolescents.

An additional reason to be concerned is that racial gaps in academic success have implications for workforce quality and the competitiveness of the U.S. economy. Poorly educated Americans face a number of growing hurdles. There are important racial and ethnic differences in the distribution of job-related skills; nearly half of all new jobs being created in the U.S. require a college degree; and the Hispanic plus non-Hispanic black share of the workforce is increasing. Added to this is the fact that global forces are putting pressure on American families with inadequate education. The end of the cold war and the integration of China, India, and the former Soviet-bloc republics into the international market-oriented, capitalist production system effectively doubled the number of workers in the global economy from about 1.5 billion in 2000 to 3 billion. Whereas unskilled U.S. workers once had to compete only with other unskilled Americans, now poorly educated Americans have to compete with unskilled, low-wage workers anywhere in the world. At the very time we need a better educated population to compete with other rapidly modernizing countries and to avoid a decline in living standards, growth in the quality of the U.S. workforce has slowed or stagnated.

The challenge facing all Americans is to identify the factors responsible for the racial academic achievement gap and close this gap as soon as possible. Time alone is an unreliable ally. Given the slow rate of convergence in black-white test outcomes over the past 30 years, it is likely to take another century to reach parity. The No Child Left Behind Act aims to eliminate the racial gap in academic achievement by the end of the 2013-14 school year, but no serious observer believes this goal will be met. Test scores have been rising for all students, but racial gaps persist. There is general agreement about the broad set of factors responsible for the achievement gap. Home environments, schools, and neighborhood conditions, among other determinants, have been implicated. But no one knows for sure how all of these factors interact or what their relative importance is. Most critically, there is no consensus on the most effective intervention strategies.

So What is to Be Done?

To address this problem, we propose in our book the equivalent of a Manhattan Project for the social and behavioral sciences — a project with the same scale, urgency, and sense of importance as the original Manhattan Project. Its aims should be twofold: (1) to identify the causes and cumulative consequences of racial gaps in academic achievement and (2) to develop concrete steps that can be taken by parents, schools, neighborhoods, and the public sector all working together to close these gaps on a nationwide scale. We should not be satisfied with demonstrated success in pilot studies on a local level.

The project we envision is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, likely on a scale previously unimagined in social or behavioral science research. It will have to monitor the lives of a large sample of children — perhaps as many as 50,000 — who are followed from birth to roughly age eighteen, or onto the first rung of their postsecondary plans. Data generated by this project will doubtless consume the time of hundreds of graduate students, faculty, and research scientists at our leading research and teaching institutions.

All Americans stand to benefit from the knowledge and action plan derived from this project, especially individuals whose life chances will be made brighter as a result. But there are several groups that have a particular stake in its success:

Higher education. As we have shown in our simulations, if black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps are closed, affirmative action policies would no longer be needed at selective colleges and universities to preserve current shares of underrepresented minority students on campus. This issue takes on greater urgency because of the 25-year sunset provision for affirmative action suggested in Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger and the realization that students going to college in 2028 will be born next year.

Corporate America. Achievement gaps impede diversity in the workplace, not only in entry-level positions but up and down the corporate ladder. All too often one finds a shrinking diversity pipeline as one looks at upper levels of management. Closing the achievement gap would help expand this pipeline.

U.S. taxpayers. Many of our public policies and programs are directed to combating the symptoms of the achievement gap, but this approach is both expensive and inefficient. Individuals with improved education and greater labor market success have higher earnings, pay more in taxes, and make fewer claims on public services.

Philanthropic sector. Identifying successful intervention strategies will give foundations concerned with child welfare and, especially, the education of children and adolescents a clearer idea of where to target resources.

The racial gap in academic performance plays a much more central role in problems that loom large today than almost anyone realizes. That is why we call this gap “the most pressing domestic issue facing the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Closing the achievement gap has the potential to do more for race relations and racial equality in this country than any other initiative currently under consideration.

Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford
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Thomas J. Espenshade is professor of sociology at Princeton University. Alexandria Walton Radford is a research associate in postsecondary education with MPR Associates Inc. in Washington.

Diversity's Next Challenges

In the early 1990s, two social psychologists conducted an experiment to see whether our society’s negative racial stereotypes affect the learning experience of students in our educational institutions. They selected a group of black and white Stanford undergraduates and gave them a test made up of items from the advanced Graduate Record Examination in literature. The students had been statistically matched for ability, and since most of them were sophomores, the GRE-based test was intentionally chosen so that it would be challenging and difficult for them.

The psychologists – Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson – wanted to see if there were differences in the way students of similar academic background but from different racial groups experienced a test that is supposed to be scientific and "objective." In particular, they wanted to see whether simple cues provided in the testing environment would affect the students’ performance. The cues they provided casually were intended to refer indirectly to negative social images; their goal was to see, in short, if negative social stereotypes were mere words, or if they had the power of sticks and stones (for a basic overview, see “Thin Ice”).

What they found was startling. When the test was given to the students as an abstract test of intellectual ability (the cue from the examiner echoing social prejudices about IQ tests), the black students in the group performed less well than the white students. When, however, they presented the same test as a study of "how certain problems are generally solved," with a clear statement that the task did not measure intellectual ability in general, the black students' performance improved dramatically and now their scores matched those of the white students.

Experiments such as this one have been carefully replicated by researchers in various countries and they consistently produce the same measurable effect – not only in the case of racial stereotypes but also those concerning gender and class. The series of experiments Steele and his colleagues conducted revealed to them that all our current beliefs about bolstering self-confidence and eliminating socially produced self-doubt are much less relevant to the learning context than we think.

Instead, what the black students revealed was that they were responding to their educational environment with "social mistrust.” “When they felt trust,” says Steele, summarizing the results of this series of experiments, the students “performed well regardless of whether we had weakened their self-confidence beforehand. And when they didn’t feel trust, no amount of bolstering of self-confidence helped." He goes on to suggest that educational policy needs to recognize how "different kinds of students may require different pedagogies of improvement."

Steele says that we need to think about “fostering racial trust” if we want to improve the educational environment for vast numbers of American college students. This proposal – and the groundbreaking research on which it is based – goes to the heart of the discussion of what we may call "the future of diversity." The proposal takes us beyond our current – perfectly justified – concern with providing more students "access" to college. It forces us to think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.

Social trust or mistrust are not merely attitudinal matters, to be left up to those who are affected by them, that is, the students; trust and mistrust – as we see in the case of the cues provided in the psychology experiments – are produced by our actions as teachers and administrators, and they reveal much more than our personal intentions as individuals. As many have argued in recent decades, trust is a social achievement and it takes us beyond our contractual obligations to be legally fair. Trust and mistrust are often defining characteristics of the environment in which we all live and function, and they can exist even in the absence of overt discrimination. So the real question is whether our students experience our educational institutions as being trustworthy.

Far from being content with recruiting greater numbers of socially underprivileged students, staff, and faculty, we need to see the ideal of social trust as a positive challenge to re-imagine the culture of our campuses, to envision a culture that will be more conducive to learning precisely because it is more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experiences of different social groups. Diversity needs to be conceptualized not only from the perspective of access (admissions, recruitment, financial aid, etc.) but also – and equally importantly – from the perspective of the campus as a learning environment for different kinds of learners.

A forthcoming volume, The Future of Diversity: Academic Leaders Reflect on American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan) contains essays by academic leaders from a variety of American institutions on both these perspectives – access and the culture of learning. How do we broaden access to more kinds of social groups? How do we make our campuses more genuinely inclusive? How do we conceive social diversity as a valuable educational resource, rather than a problem to be managed or solved? How, finally, do we replace the mistrust many feel – and the inequality of access, opportunity, and experience it points to – with the kind of social trust on which all learning, and indeed the very ideal of democracy, depends? These are big and general questions, and the prominent academics who have contributed to this volume – university and foundation presidents, deans, leading scholars -- address them by drawing in part on their own specific experiences. They review what we have all learned from recent history – from the Supreme Court’s verdict on the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action to experiments on various campuses involving students from different cultural backgrounds – and they make concrete proposals for the future.

One of the challenges is to imagine a diverse campus as a valuable and unique learning environment, one that is in effect a social laboratory of sorts. Nancy Cantor – president of Syracuse University and former provost of the University of Michigan (during the critical period when the recent Supreme Court cases were being prepared) -- argues that university campuses have a special role to play in building the future of our multicultural and diverse society. Cantor argues that "healthy group dynamics" are critical "if we are to open up our institutions (and the power within them and conferred by them) and transcend the destructive fault lines of our society, thereby building the capacity for – and trust in – democratic culture beyond the campus." Cantor’s central point is that the campus culture needs to be organized in such a way that it respects the "delicate balance between strong group identification and vibrant inter-group exchange."

Like many psychologists, Cantor affirms the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups, thus implicitly rejecting the popular notion that group identities are necessarily opposed to the non-parochial ethical perspective required of citizens of a democratic society. She also focuses on the importance of "normalizing" conflict, of raising – through "mutual respect and healthy interaction" – our consciousness of conflict so that we see it as a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference (of background, of views, of life experiences).

A second issue arises when we think about the roles played by different kinds of universities, especially non-elite and regional institutions. Campuses like Rutgers-Newark or Michigan-Dearborn serve first-generation immigrant families and provide an educational experience in which socio-cultural diversity defines the learning environment, one that reflects the rich diversity of both American society in general and the increasingly globalized world in which we all live. But Steven Diner, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, points out that while his alumni recognize the value of this environment and talk about it eloquently, the mainstream culture seems to lack the tools with which to measure its value. Daniel Little, chancellor of Michigan-Dearborn, makes this point in more general terms. While elite status and financial resources are valuable, he says, they do not guarantee a superior educational experience, for a quality education depends on a combination of factors, chief among which is the conscious planning and coordination by various levels of the campus leadership – the administration and the faculty. Diner and Little point to the crucial role played in any democratic society by regional and urban institutions in providing access and social mobility to immigrants and those from lower income groups. If the goal is to reduce social inequality through education, then regional and urban universities need to be both recognized and supported by policy makers at not just the state level but also nationally.

The scandalous truth is of course that American educational policy is weak precisely on a national level, since funding of public universities has generally been left entirely up to the states. What the recent economic downturn makes clear, however, is that American higher education, which has traditionally been the engine of the country’s economic development, has fallen behind dramatically, and that is mainly because of the erosion of federal funding and our myopic social policies about lower income groups. As the economist Paul Krugman points out in The New York Times, education and social mobility suffer because of largely invisible economic policy decisions, the net effect of which is that American higher education is no longer available to the population at large. Krugman considers this predictable result of myopic national policy to be “a large gratuitous waste of human potential,” and calls for Congress to take appropriate measures. “Education made America great,” he points out, and goes on to issue a timely and urgent warning: “neglect of education can reverse the process.”

Noting the need to address social inequality in the broader national context, Eugene Tobin [former president of Hamilton College and co-author – with William Bowen and Martin Kurzweil -- of Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (2005)] recommends that at least the top universities, private and public, consider putting a "thumb on the admission scale" by taking low-income status at least as seriously as we now take race. Research shows that students from less affluent backgrounds, once admitted, go on to do at least as well as those from more affluent ones. Broader considerations of social justice would necessitate that colleges and universities take class seriously in their definition of social diversity. Income-based preferences in admission, Tobin argues, should be seen as a necessary complement to the race-based programs that have been so successful in diversifying the major colleges and universities that have initiated such programs in recent decades.

All these attempts to imagine a more genuinely diverse academic campus have an interesting implication: academic "excellence" can be achieved only if we recognize the social conditions in which learning takes place. Our efforts to promote excellence on our campuses are closely tied to our ideals of democracy and diversity, and these efforts cannot be successful if we do not question our deeper assumptions about what success is and what produces an effective culture for the work of scholarship and teaching. For such work is not done by abstract individuals but by socially embodied beings, with socially produced strengths and vulnerabilities, and any attempt to think about the educational culture of a campus must focus on the actual experiences of faculty and students from a variety of social backgrounds. This requires a rethinking of some of our most basic theoretical assumptions as well as a reexamination of our traditional habits and practices.

One of these theoretical assumptions concerns the nature and value of what is called "objectivity." It is possible to worry that while taking the subjective experiences of students and faculty of color, for instance, into account may improve the campus culture in some respects, it compromises the objectivity of our approach as senior faculty or administrators. That worry is based on the understanding of objectivity as pure “neutrality,” and there are reasons to doubt that this conflation of objectivity with neutrality is intellectually justified. Modern philosophers often talk about the need to see objectivity as a context-sensitive value rather than the product of an abstract and a-contextual attitude of neutrality. So in contexts where unfairness is built into the environment because of half-conscious habits and practices that echo and reinforce prejudices prevalent in the social mainstream, genuine objectivity may itself be the product of a conscious effort to examine our assumptions rather than of a neutral approach – as evidenced, for instance, in "color blind" or "gender blind" policies. What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.

One of the most revealing experiments done by Steele’s colleagues showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair – that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged. In thinking about the culture of a genuinely inclusive learning environment, then, the first great challenge for us may be to remind ourselves that what is needed is not so much sentimental partiality as -- ultimately -- greater objectivity. The assurance of genuine fairness can restore social trust. The future of diversity on our campuses depends on our thinking hard about restoring to education and learning the healthy environment of mutual trust and respect in which alone they can thrive. And while social forces beyond our immediate control do much to diminish this trust, the joy – indeed the magic and mystery – of learning is that it can transcend such forces. The world pervades our classrooms and our laboratories, but it does not wholly determine what can be achieved in them.

Both recent research in social psychology and the academic leaders I have been quoting suggest that there is an urgent need for all of us to coordinate our efforts to re-imagine our campuses and to work toward making them the laboratories that they can be -- of the future society we hope to build. Social diversity is about more than just numbers. Most importantly, it is not a "problem" to be solved, but rather an enormous social and educational resource that is waiting to be tapped. From admissions to sports to the designing of the curriculum and of non-curricular interactions, the practical and theoretical challenges posed by a campus’s “diversity” are the gateways to a more democratic national future.

Satya P. Mohanty
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Satya P. Mohanty is professor of English at Cornell. He is director of the national Future of Minority Studies Summer Institute, funded since 2005 through grants by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Future of Diversity, which he co-edited with the philosopher Daniel Little (chancellor of the University of Michigan at Dearborn), will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2010.

Barack Obama and Affirmative Action

Even as Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee last Tuesday, his continuing failure to win white working-class voters clouds his prospects for November. The inability to connect with noncollege educated whites also undercuts his claim to being a truly transformative candidate -- a Robert F. Kennedy figure -- who could significantly change the direction of the country. In the fall campaign, however, Obama's suggestion that he may be ready to change the focus of affirmative action policies in higher education -- away from race to economic class -- could prove pivotal in his efforts to reach working-class whites, and revive the great hopes of Bobby Kennedy's candidacy.

Affirmative action is a highly charged issue, which most politicians stay away from. But nothing could carry more potent symbolic value with Reagan Democrats than for Obama to end the Democratic Party's 40 years of support for racial preferences and to argue, instead, for preferences -- in college admissions and elsewhere -- based on economic status. Obama needs to do something dramatic. Right now, while people inside and outside the Obama campaign are making the RFK comparison, working-class whites aren't buying it. The results in Tuesday's Indiana primary are particularly poignant. Obama won handily among black Hoosiers, but lost the non-college educated white vote to Hillary Clinton by 66-34 percent. Forty years earlier, by contrast, Kennedy astonished observers by forging a coalition of blacks and working class whites, the likes of which we have rarely seen since then.

On May 6, 1968, the day before the Indiana primary, Kennedy participated in an iconic motorcade through industrial Lake County, with black mayor Richard Hatcher sitting on one side of Kennedy and boxer Tony Zale, the native son hero of Gary's Slavic steelworkers on the other. On primary election day, running against Eugene McCarthy and a stand in for Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy swept the black vote but also white working-class wards which four years earlier had supported Alabama Governor George Wallace's presidential bid. Author Robert Coles told Kennedy, "There is something going on here that has to do with real class politics."

Of course, Obama's skin color may have made it more difficult for him to attract these voters than it had been for Kennedy. But in some ways RFK had it harder: The May 1968 primary came on the heels of widespread urban rioting spawned by Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April. Blue
collar whites and blacks were at each others throats, and Kennedy was the one national politician most closely associated with black America.

In Obama's campaign to win over working-class whites, pundits have pointed to two key obstacles: his 20 year association with the angry and race-obsessed Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Obama's condescending comments about the bitterness of small-town white working-class voters. Some working-class whites appear to believe that Obama is not on their side - worried that he may favor black interests over theirs, and at the same time that he looks down his nose on people like them. The image may be unfair, the result of a single comment he made, played up by his political opponents, but the notion could stick nonetheless.

Obama is right to talk about shared concerns of all working people, such as better health care and schools. But to catch the attention of working-class whites, he needs to do something striking, which further distances himself from the Rev. Wrights of the world, who view life through the lens of race, and also signals to working-class whites that he understands that they deserve a helping hand too. Switching the basis of affirmative action policies from race to class would do just that.

Thus far, Obama has hinted that he's ready for the shift. While Obama has in the past been a strong supporter of race-based affirmative action, in his debate in Philadelphia with Hillary Clinton, he said in response to a question that his own privileged daughters do not deserve affirmative action preferences, and that working-class students of all colors do. He needs to make this explicit, to spell out the new policy, and explain why he is shifting away from his traditional reliance on race-based policies.

Supporting a shift to class-based affirmative action would be the logical policy manifestation of his well received speech on race in Philadelphia back in March. In the address, Obama made clear that this nation needs some form of affirmative action to address the legacy of discrimination in America. He noted that legalized discrimination in FHA loans, for example, prevented blacks from borrowing to purchase homes, leaving older blacks with little accumulated wealth to pass down to today's generations. And he observed that many African Americans continue to attend to attended inferior segregated schools, to live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, and to grow up in single parent households, all of which are connected to some degree to discrimination.

On the other hand, Obama acknowledged many of the arguments made by opponents of affirmative action, who say that while such policies might have once made sense, it is now time to move on. Obama faulted Rev. Wright for failing to recognize that significant racial progress has been made, and he urged the country to "move beyond our old racial wounds." Then, amazingly for a Democratic politician, he observed: "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race.... As far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything."

Resentment builds, Obama said, "when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." These resentments, he said are not "misguided or even racist," but rather are "grounded in legitimate concerns."

Class-based affirmative action reconciles both points of view. It avoids the explicit use of race that working-class whites resent, moving us beyond the "racial stalemate" Obama described. But a carefully conceived economic affirmative action program would also try to capture the full legacy of discrimination of which Obama spoke. It would be colorblind but not blind to history. Discrimination has economic manifestations, and college admissions officers could give a leg up to smart students who overcome various obstacles which disproportionately affect African Americans: growing up in a low-income household, one headed by a single-parent, a family lacking in accumulated wealth, and residing in neighborhoods with concentrated of poverty, and attending low quality schools. Under such a program, low-income and working-class kids of all races would benefit -- people like the young Barack Obama or John Edwards -- but not students like Barack Obama's own children.

Moving to class-based preferences would at once remove a terrible source of division and instead reinforce the common interests of working-class voters. And it would do more than just help Obama get elected. Reviving the old RFK coalition would give Obama a mandate to enact the type of far reaching change than hasn't been fully entertained since Kennedy's death.

Richard D. Kahlenberg
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Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action.

No Contradiction

Almost all colleges and universities seek diversity in their student bodies and their faculty as well as staff. This is often one of two major goals for these institutions, the other of which is academic excellence. But, in my experience, many faculty and some administrators view diversity and academic excellence as competing goals (see this recent example). Moreover, some view concerns about diversity largely as a form of political correctness. Is concern for diversity merely a form of political correctness, or is there really some educational benefit to a diverse student body and faculty such that diversity contributes to rather than competes with academic excellence?

There are three reasons why diversity truly is important in institutions of higher education. Consider each in turn.

First, students learn more from others if the others are different from themselves in significant ways. Imagine, in some strange world, that everyone in a university was a clone of everyone else. Students would learn almost nothing from each other, because they all would be identical to each other. Diversity promotes learning by exposing students to different ways of seeing the world, different points of view, and different assumptions about how the world works. Much of learning is outside the classroom -- it is in the informal curriculum of the university.

One’s learning from friends is as important as one’s learning from books and lectures. And diverse friends expose one to different experiences. When I was a freshman, I had classmates in my hallway from Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, Texas, Georgia, New York, Calgary (Canada), and other locales. I learned from them in a way that would not have been possible if all were from my home state of New Jersey. At Oklahoma State University, we have the largest number of American Indian undergraduates of any university. These students teach other students about diverse cultures in a way that students of the majority culture could not. In a global world and global economy, we fail to learn about others at our peril.

Second, diversity helps promote understanding that can be lacking when different groups fail, or even refuse, to interact. In 1968, the Flemish and French-speaking factions of the University of Leuven decided that they could not get along, and they split, leaving two universities, Leuven (Flemish-speaking) and Louvain (French-speaking). The repercussions of this and other similar splits can be seen in contemporary Belgium, which has not had a fully functioning government since April 22, 2010. The country has been on the verge of splitting apart because people of different linguistic and cultural groups have failed to work together. The split has hurt the economy and, obviously, the morale of people in the country. South Africa, for many years, had “black” universities and “white” universities, never the twain did meet; the consequences were extremely negative for education and for the country as a whole. Bringing diverse people together creates bridges across cultural, linguistic, racial, and other divides.

Third, diversity helps attract the best students, faculty, and staff. Suppose everyone at a particular university is a member of Group X, whatever group that may be. It is safe to say that no matter what the group, many of the people who could contribute most to the university will be members of other groups. But members of other groups likely will be reluctant to go to a university where they will find no one at all like themselves. The result is that the university will scare away many of the most able potential constituents.

Academic excellence and diversity go hand-in-hand because, to have excellence, you need diversity. Some faculty will argue that increasing diversity will reduce the academic skills of the student body. But this argument is based largely on scores from narrow standardized tests. When we have measured creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills in addition to the memory and analytical skills measured by conventional standardized tests, we have found that group differences, such as among diverse ethnic groups, are greatly reduced or even eliminated at the same time that the predictive power of the measures is increased. In other words, choosing students for diverse talents identifies students who can succeed academically who are not identified as potentially successful by standardized tests. Similar logic applies to faculty and staff.

In sum, diversity is actually not a matter of political correctness (although the concept can be perverted to be just that). It is a way of bringing together people into an organization that helps to ensure that the whole is more, rather than less, than the sum of its parts. Without diversity, true academic excellence is difficult, if not impossible, to attain.

Robert J. Sternberg
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Robert J. Sternberg is provost and senior vice president of Oklahoma State University.

Gender Impact

Smart Title: 
State efforts to eliminate affirmative action may focus on race, but they can also destroy programs for female students, says a new report.

A New Attack on Standardized Tests

Smart Title: 
U. of California, which helped prompt changes to the SAT, now questions dependence on PSAT in awarding National Merit Scholarships.

Unequal Progress

Smart Title: 
College participation rates for young adults are increasing for most demographic groups, but so are the gaps between some groups.

Different Results, Same Policy?

Smart Title: 
Study finds big drop in number of low-scoring students admitted to U. of California, a year after a regent blasted the university.

Debating Equity and Excellence

Smart Title: 
A new book urges colleges to give low-income students the same admissions edge they give to children of alumni.

Texas and the 10% Plan

Smart Title: 
Legislators pass competing proposals to revamp the law that guarantees admission to students based on high school class rank.


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