After the Protests: What's Next in the Quest for True Campus Diversity?

Colleges must create an environment where students feel comfortable and respected in order to support students in finding success. But colleges must also address academic inequities.
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After an academic year marked by protests in the streets and on college campuses, America's collective consciousness is acutely focused on diversity. On our campuses, students of color and their allies are raising their voices to secure communities that are respectful, inclusive, and welcoming to all. The demands that they have made address a range of concerns, such as mandatory diversity training for school officials, diversifying faculty and staff, hiring chief diversity officers, and renaming of buildings with ties to the histories of slavery, segregation, or racism. Creating a community where all students experience a sense of belonging and respect is critical to equal opportunities for success, and students are right to advocate for this kind of environment.

To these calls for action, I want to add one more. Achieving equity and inclusion must also include the sorts of high impact academic experiences shown to have the greatest influence on educational outcomes.

A college defined by equity and inclusion is one where all students are equally likely to engage in programs and opportunities across campus and to succeed in their chosen fields. Are all programs and educational opportunities equally welcoming to all students? Do all students take advantage of whatever benefits the institution has to offer at the same rate? Does everyone have an equal chance to graduate from these institutions?

Recent data shared by the Association of American Colleges and Universities shows that participation in high-impact practices -- such as first-year seminars, common intellectual experiences, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, global and community-based learning, and internships -- is not equal among all students. Students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups engage in fewer of these experiences across their college years, despite evidence that these practices truly benefit them. Data also shows that these students have a lower graduation rate than their white peers.

While many explanations of these patterns fault the students, the problem is actually systemic - not individual. Equity of educational opportunities and outcomes requires an institutional commitment, intentional design, and, in many cases, funding.

An example of a high-impact practice that all schools can design and fund is first-year seminars, often capped at fewer than 15 students, which aim to introduce newcomers to the college seminar experience. These are a familiar part of the academic program at liberal arts colleges, for example, but they are critical to success for students across the spectrum of universities and colleges. Such seminars can be writing-intensive, allowing students to receive more personalized feedback. Focused on topics that are of interest to students and designed for intensive group as well as one-on-one engagement, these seminars can be required of all entering students, guaranteeing equal participation at a critical time when young people first arrive on campus and must adjust to new expectations for critical thinking and active intellectual engagement.

Colleges can also develop more holistic courses that include things like close faculty mentorship and experiential learning -- "extracurriculars" that might historically have been more difficult for underrepresented students to pursue given economic or other personal obligations. At Bryn Mawr, for example, we created a program called "360°," in which a small group of students takes courses from three different disciplines that address a common issue or problem. These course clusters require and support students to conduct fieldwork and public dissemination of findings, "additional" activities that are often less available to underrepresented students. By making an institutional commitment to fund and provide academic credit for travel and fieldwork, students of all backgrounds -- first-generation students and those from under-represented groups and low-income backgrounds -- participate and benefit equally.

Colleges must create an environment where students feel comfortable and respected in order to support students in finding success. But colleges must also address academic inequities. Both are essential areas of focus if colleges and universities are to be successful in fulfilling their promise of equal access and equity in higher education.

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