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Achieving Diversity on Campus: A Better Approach

Achieving Diversity on Campus: A Better Approach
By Don Munce

The recent passing of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks reminds Americans of the long struggle we have undertaken to achieve true equity in our country — how far we have come and how far we have to go. Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated paved the way for others to stand up for their rights. In that mold, we can view our commitment to creating truly multicultural college and university campuses as an investment in future diverse communities. Student bodies that are inclusive and represent the spectrum of cultures in this country greatly enhance the experiences and the potential of our young people.   

The landmark Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court decision in 2003 affirming the value of racial diversity in university admissions opened the doors of opportunity to many students who might otherwise have been left out. But celebrating that decision is not the same as putting it into action. Current outreach and recruitment efforts often fail to identify and recruit the very students for whom the decision was meant to benefit.

The challenge is to raise awareness of the current practices that result in the under-representation of certain groups of students, and to provide colleges and universities with tools to bring greater diversity to their admissions systems.

The process of developing a campus’s student body begins long before admissions applications are submitted. Enrollment officers begin building their classes two to three years in advance. The decisions they make about the various admissions criteria are critical. They open doors to some young people, and close them for others; often those who already have too few viable options.

Research indicates that colleges and universities under-select students from groups that are already underrepresented on campus and tend to over-select from groups that are already represented in disproportionate numbers.

The net result is that these recruitment efforts — while most often well-intentioned — are actually squeezing out some of the students who could most benefit from balanced diversity outreach.

Colleges and universities tend to focus on students with stellar high school GPAs. To a certain extent, this is a reasonable approach, since high school GPA is among the most reliable predictors of college performance. But by focusing admissions efforts on GPA, to the detriment of other considerations, diversity suffers and capable students are overlooked, undersolicited and underrepresented.

These include male students, students from lower-income households and those from every racial demographic except Asians and Whites. Research shows that the average high school female is more likely to receive information from colleges and universities than her male counterpart, despite the well-documented campus gender imbalance favoring females. A White high school student is more than twice as likely to receive information from postsecondary institutions than a Black or Latino student.
Data also show that colleges are still more likely to send information to White and Asian students than to Black and Hispanic ones, even when all the students have similar family incomes and academic standings. On almost every comparison scale, those populations with the lowest enrollment figures are the ones least likely to receive information about postsecondary education: Students with lower GPAs, males,
non-Asian minorities and individuals from households with annual incomes of less than $50,000.

Are schools intentionally seeking more female students and fewer minorities? Clearly they are not. Rather, colleges and universities may not be taking into account the relationship between different demographic variables and how these affect their recruitment results. The good news is that even modest adjustments in these criteria can expand the pool of potential students. For instance, revising the GPA cutoff from A- to B+ doubles the percentage of African-Americans selected. Research shows that other, similar correlations exist. These factors can and should be used to bring admissions outreach to far more potential students — good students who can succeed in college and who want a chance at getting ahead. 

There are answers to the challenge of diversity in admissions. But sometimes those answers require trade-offs. Sometimes they require difficult and sophisticated data analysis. They also at times conflict with other realities, such as a limited number of slots available for a large number of potential applicants, funding cutbacks that eliminate remedial programs, the pressure to maintain high rankings among competing institutions and others. However, it is clear that universities and colleges can maximize search options and meet their institutional goals by abandoning one-dimensional approaches and honing recruitment strategies to make the promise of achieving diversity a reality.

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