Commentary: Closing Racial Divide Creates New Opportunities for Colleges

Findings from our most recent research show clear signs that race relations on U.S. campuses are better than they have been for years. As we detail in our new book, Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Students, over the last four decades, students of color have grown more confident that their college is not viewing them through a color-tinted lens. White students are embracing diversity in large numbers, having grown up as members of the most diverse generation in U.S. history. And a majority of undergraduates —Black and White, Asians and Hispanics —have close friends of other races and support intergroup relationships.

But that doesn’t mean our work — as a nation or as higher-education leaders — is done. It means we can now explore in a more nuanced fashion what diversity should mean for higher education and for each of the nation’s campuses.

Here is where we stand, based on more than 40 years of national surveys of students and campus officials, and site visits at 31 institutions chosen to represent the spectrum of American higher education: Arthur’s research in the 1990s for a previous book in the series, When Hope and Fear Collide, indicated that diversity was the most heated issue on the nation’s college campuses; there were deep divides between undergraduates of different races. It was a painful subject that students did not want to talk about except in homogeneous racial groups.

In that study a decade ago, racial minorities talked about feeling marginalized on campus — “like an unwelcome guest at a party rather than a member of the family,” as one student of color put it. Students of color spoke of being viewed wholly in terms of their skin color: A Black student from one of the wealthiest suburbs in America said she was asked repeatedly by White students what it was like to grow up in a ghetto.

As recently as our 1993 undergraduate survey, 57 percent of Black students surveyed said most American colleges were racist, whether they meant to be or not. But by 2009, only 26 percent of Black students concurred.

In 1993, 67 percent of Black students agreed with the statement, “Racial discrimination will hurt my job chances.” By 2009, that proportion had dropped by more than 30 percentage points.

As our most recent data show, White, Black, Hispanic and Asian-American students are all now more likely to think the country has made real progress toward racial equality in the past five years. A majority of students across all groups — two-thirds of Hispanic students and 80 to 90 percent of White, Black, and Asian-American students — report that they have a close friend of a different race. A majority of students in each group (ranging from 50 percent of Whites to 75 percent of Black students) say that undergraduate education would be improved if there were more diversity among students and faculty.

Only a minority of students in any ethnic or racial group (ranging from 34 percent for Blacks to 45 percent for Asian-Americans) say they are more comfortable socializing with people of their own race. A minority of students from each group feel that professors at their colleges do not take students of color seriously, or that they are uncomfortable with interracial dating and marriage

Parallel to these trends in student outlook is the increase in diversity itself. As reflected in our most recent data, among two-year colleges, 59 percent reported increases in diversity. Among four-year colleges, 75 percent reported increases in diversity.

But it’s not yet time to unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner.

For one thing, significant majorities of Black and Hispanic students — 78 percent and 68 percent, respectively — still believe that “To get ahead, minorities (racial and ethnic) have to be twice as good as majorities.”

And while the level of racial tension is at a low point, it hasn’t diminished appreciably since 2001, with institutions reporting declines only slightly outnumbering those reporting increases.

Moreover, our surveys of student affairs staff members show that today’s students, who tend to be weak in interpersonal skills, also seek to avoid discussing diversity issues. Racial issues that do crop up still tend to smolder, rather than getting discussed openly, and political correctness remains a bar to conversation: in 1993, three out of five student affairs officers characterized their campus climate as politically correct. Officers on a quarter of campuses report increases in political correctness since 2001.

Meanwhile, the voluntary segregation by race that was prevalent two decades ago is still commonplace. Half or more of the students surveyed — Whites (77 percent), Blacks (53 percent), Hispanics (50 percent) and Asian-Americans (57 percent) — say they primarily socialize with members of their own race, whether they mean to or not.

So where do we go from here?

The history of diversity initiatives in higher education over the past half-century is largely one of band-aids and responding to problems. The calmer, improved climate makes it possible to do something which has in the past been relatively infrequent —to define the meaning and goals for diversity on our campuses which will vary from institution to institution and region to region of the country; to think broadly, plan comprehensively, and develop long-term plans of action ranging across admissions, financial aid, academic offerings, co-curricular programs, facilities, staffing, services, and all across the spectrum of campus offerings.

Strategies to build bridges among diverse campus groups — both in and out of the classroom — should be initiated or strengthened. Colleges and universities can also build on these efforts to address what are emerging as the two heated diversity issues in higher education — sexual orientation and social class. If the quarterback is Black and the halfback is White, they need each other to score a touchdown. If Romeo is gay and Juliet is straight, they still need to act as if they are deeply in love. When people work closely together and are mutually dependent, they get to know each other as people rather than as stereotypes.

Other promising approaches to further strengthen diversity include:

  • Building diverse populations of students, faculty, staff, and trustees by recruiting critical numbers to establish comfort and put in place the supports necessary to sustain and enrich them. Put the accent on professional development, retention, growth and, for students, graduation.
  • Backing up rhetoric with investment. For instance, reduce merit-based financial aid in favor of need-based aid, and expand public and private programs to help nontraditional students prepare and pay for college.
  • Expanding both the curriculum and extracurriculum to include more multicultural content and activities — not because it is politically correct, but because students need to be prepared to live and work in a diverse global society. Their communities and workplaces will be more diverse and interconnected than ever before in heterogeneous teams.
  • Using pedagogies that support these goals, such as employing diverse student problem-solving groups for building bridges and developing capabilities that the job market increasingly demands.

Progress in these areas has the potential to make real the diverse community higher education has spoken of since the 1960s. Whether colleges act or do not, their campuses will likely become more diverse in years to come. The opportunity being presented to us today is to plan for that community rather than having it occur by serendipity and demographic destiny. We owe this to the future.

Dr. Arthur Levine is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and Dr. Diane Dean is a professor of education at Illinois State University. Together, they are authors of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Students, to be published on September 24, 2012 by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.