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In 1978, when the Supreme Court heard the landmark Bakke case that permitted race to be considered as one of several factors in higher education admissions, several colleges and universities filed amicus briefs in support of the University of California’s race-conscious policies. The central argument of those briefs was that such policies were needed to correct, in part, the cumulative impact of past discrimination against minority applicants.

Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. offered a different perspective. Race-conscious admission policies (though not quotas), he wrote, were a defensible and useful way to achieve racial and cultural diversity on university campuses. All students, not just minority students, stood to benefit from living and learning within diverse communities.

Forty years after Bakke, the consensus around the educational value of diversity is very strong. Colleges and universities, whether large or small, private or public, promote campus diversity as an important part of their mission. Quite a few institutions, especially elite liberal arts colleges in rural areas, try hard to create educationally diverse environments for their students.

Words and images on the websites of hundreds of institutions and of higher education associations attest to the strength of the consensus. The shared message? Students who are educated on diverse campuses, taught by diverse faculties and introduced to culturally diverse curricula will be well prepared to thrive in our multiethnic country and to understand what goes on in the rest of the world.

The message is convincing. In a society segregated de facto by income, race and ethnicity, higher education indeed should provide opportunities for students to trespass the psychological and physical boundaries of their communities and high schools. And it is surely a fine idea to introduce our young people to the history, values and aspirations of the 95 percent of human beings who do not live in the United States. Remarkably, however, the consensus around the educational value of diversity has had little impact on the influential rankings of colleges and universities and on the flow of resources to higher education. There is a wide gap between our proclamations about the educational value of diversity and what we actually do when we counsel college applicants, appropriate public funds for higher education or make private donations.

If our individual and collective actions matched our rhetoric, those institutions that are organically and authentically diverse would move up significantly on our list of preferred destinations for talented students and for public and private funds. Think of public institutions like the City University of New York, both California university systems, the University of Houston and Arizona State University. Think of private universities like Northeastern University in Boston or St. John’s University in New York.

The gap between rhetoric and action remains wide for many reasons. One reason is that we higher education leaders and our supporters subscribe to a scarcity model of higher education. For decades, authors of college rankings, and the high school counselors who follow their lead, have convinced prospective students and their families that there is only so much room at the top of the academic pecking order, the key to social and economic advancement.

Rankings are based on several indicators of institutional vitality and success. Campus diversity usually does make the list of indicators. Yet it trails behind conventional academic indicators, such as enrolled students’ high school grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores, and well behind indicators of institutional wealth, such as endowment dollars per student, faculty salaries and state-of the-art facilities.

At this point in our history, we should celebrate the unprecedented abundance of choices in American higher education, including opportunities to be educated at diverse campuses surrounded by diverse communities. Instead, our attention and resources remain focused on institutions whose high rankings depend in good measure on how many applicants they can afford to reject.

Those selective colleges and universities that benefit from the scarcity model have little incentive to change perceptions and priorities about what matters most in higher education. But leaders of institutions that offer diverse learning environments and are embedded in large and diverse communities should ask three questions.

What happened to the broad consensus reached decades ago about the educational value of diversity? Why, in most rankings, does campus diversity fall well below other indicators? And why the reluctance of legislators and private philanthropists to invest more generously in this country’s most organically and authentic diverse institutions?

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