Back when the United States had a predominantly White population (an estimated 80 percent in the 1960s), college campuses were the site of much needed progress when it came to diversity. The programs developed on campuses like Berkeley and even Ivy Leagues like Harvard set the groundwork for what diversity initiatives should look like in the workplace that followed. There was a general urgency about the great need for better opportunities for women and minorities, and the action to facilitate that started in college settings.
As the nation moves toward transitioning to an official minority-majority population (estimates currently place this shift in the year 2043), college and university campuses are more important than ever as the starting place for diversity programs that close achievement gaps and feed a varied workforce population. But are colleges today able to keep up?
Better diversity, everywhere
The good news is that, as a nation, diversity is improving at every turn. We don’t necessarily need to look to our colleges for guidance; the workplace is doing a much better job providing better opportunities for all Americans that value diverse voices. Google has publicly vowed to hire more minorities and women to its tech staffs and Facebook has done the same.
Diversity is seeing support from beyond the private sector as well. President Obama has made it his administration’s mission to address the social and economic issues that minorities face through a variety of programs, including My Brother’s Keeper, which targets the obstacles facing academic and life success for Black young men, and the President’s Commission on Equity and Inclusion, an initiative that addresses the historical inequities that affect the nation. Colleges don’t have to carry the diversity torch alone and that’s not a bad thing.
What it does do, however, is up the game for institutions of higher education. Colleges no longer need to provide the stage for basic discussions on achievement gaps, and wage inequality, and general lack of women and minorities in certain fields, like STEM careers. This doesn’t mean that the college and university landscape should back off, though. It means that, collectively, we should be digging deeper into these issues and find out what changes we can facilitate that go beyond surface level. We don’t have to raise the same awareness we needed to raise a few decades ago. So how can we take the hard work being done in other arenas and make it work for our own progressive agendas?
The next phase
It’s not time to rest on our laurels and allow everyone else to do the work when it comes to diversity throughout our nation. Higher education has a responsibility to continue pushing the envelope when it comes to equality on our campuses and in the great big world beyond them. Specifically, colleges have the power to impact positive change in diversity by:
- Empowering first-generation students. All of the youth in our borders deserve the opportunities afforded by a higher education—but simply admitting them based on their ethnicity or economic status is not enough. Colleges must continue to recognize the unique obstacles for students who are the first ones from their families heading to college. Getting these students to graduation is a must if we want to change the landscape of the workforce to better reflect the general U.S. population.
- Shining a spotlight on LGBTQ+ issues. There is much more awareness about the challenges members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and queer face than even a decade ago—but there is still plenty of room for improvement. Colleges and universities should push the envelope when it comes to inclusion policies that are unlikely in other settings. Showing college students what a pro-LGBTQ+ agenda looks like will help make those initiatives a reality in workplaces in years to come.
- Hiring and cultivating diverse faculty. Colleges benefit from variety in thought and life experiences not just in the student body; faculty, staff, and administration must also come from a diverse place to really make an impact on the college itself and the community beyond. Colleges should have an even higher amount of minorities and women employed than the general population in order to give students the benefit of underrepresented voices.
Much of the progress in diversity happening in our nation today is thanks directly to progressive initiatives that started on college campuses. It’s time to kick that up a notch—and build on that foundation for an even more diverse workforce in the future.
Dr. Matthew Lynch is dean of the School of Education, Psychology, and Interdisciplinary Studies, and an associate professor of Education at Virginia Union University.