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Committed to Open Access
By Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail

The academic value of diversity has long been proven but is rarely given national attention other than in emotionally charged affirmative action debates. Such debates were at the heart of the wrangling over the University of Michigan admissions policies and the U.S. Supreme Court’s final ruling. When we step away from the lens of litigation, we can see diversity more clearly as a non-threatening opportunity for people of all colors.

As the chancellor of a major community college, the debates over affirmative action admission policies never come through our door because we are committed to open access for all. Community colleges are unique in that this open-access policy makes us a giant melting pot. Our campuses are filled with students of every ethnic and racial group imaginable. The open-access policy allows us to focus on student outcomes rather than on SAT scores or entrance qualifications.

In our democratic society, education has long been the Great Equalizer: It represents hope, opportunity and the American dream. Access to quality education opens the doors wide to advancement in many aspects of life. It often becomes the only means available for upward mobility. Having students on campus with different perspectives, different experiences and different backgrounds is critical to making the educational process work. The value of diversity in the classroom benefits not only individual students, but serves society as well. Diversity teaches students how to live among others with appreciation for cultural differences and with mutual respect for one another.

Numerous academic studies have demonstrated that diversity’s benefits reach far beyond the hallways of academia. For example, research conducted in the early 1990s showed that diversity helps students become conscious learners and critical thinkers. Diversity prepares them for life in America’s multicultural society of the 21st century.

At the University of Michigan, research conducted by psychologist Patricia Gurin and her team documented that students who interact with others (in the classroom and informally) from different racial backgrounds show the greatest engagement in active thinking, the most growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and the most growth in intellectual and academic skills. The Gurin study found a positive correlation between the diversity on college campuses and the extent to which college graduates lead racially and ethnically integrated lives.

As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare students to live in a society where they interact on a daily basis with people who are different from them in many ways. Community colleges’ open-access policy allows us to achieve that goal. Open access presents students with the opportunity to interact on a variety of levels — culturally and intellectually — and allows students to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for differences.

Our classrooms are better served by the diversity created by open access. At my institution, we bear witness to remarkable transformations that are possible only when students from diverse backgrounds get much-needed support to help them change the course of their lives.

Companies seek workers with open minds who are knowledgeable and astutely aware of the implications of a global economy. Our colleges must prepare students to operate in this highly competitive global environment. If we fail in this mission, we do our students a great disservice.

— Dr. Irving Pressley McPhail is chancellor of The Community College of Baltimore County

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