Class Diversity in Higher Education: A Complement, But Not a Replacement, for Race

The University of Texas argued that engaging in a racially diverse student body enhances student learning and fosters positive race relations. Does the same dynamic hold up for a university with greater class diversity?
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Affirmative action is in the news this summer with the recent Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas. As someone who studies higher education, I've always been particularly intrigued by the claim that class-based affirmative action would solve all (or many) of our problems. It enjoys more popular support than regular affirmative action and could potentially attract racial diversity.

We are a country divided between the haves and the have-nots, and class diversity is a worthy goal for institutions. However, there really hasn't been any research on what class diversity does for a campus environment beyond the point of admission. Does having a socioeconomically diverse student body truly provide benefits for students? It's an important question to consider: The University of Texas argued that engaging in a racially diverse student body enhances student learning and fosters positive race relations. Does the same dynamic hold up for a university with greater class diversity?

In a recent peer-reviewed study published in the American Educational Research Journal, my colleagues Nida Denson, Nicholas Bowman, and I found that class diversity actually plays a critical role in supporting positive race relations on campus. We did not specifically examine whether class diversity actually "leads" to racial diversity in university enrollments (i.e., seeing if using class-based affirmative action results in a racially diverse student body).

Instead, we wanted to know if class diversity could enhance a race-related outcome: in this case, whether students would interact with peers of different races. Having meaningful engagement with people of other races is associated with an array of civic and educational benefits during the college years so it's an important outcome to consider.

Our analysis of a national dataset of 14,894 students from the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute revealed that students interacted more with peers of other races at universities with more class diversity. Students who attended more socioeconomically diverse institutions were more likely to interact across class lines, and interacting across class lines was associated with greater interaction across racial groups. In an indirect but notable way, we found that class diversity can actually help and enhance campus race relations. Race and class matter not just during the admissions stage, but in terms of what students experience during college.

Why does class diversity help bolster the effects of racial diversity? We suggest several reasons for why having class diversity on top of race diversity fosters a more fluid campus environment. Low-income White students are more likely to attend racially mixed high schools, so they come to campus with more experience interacting across race. A college with more class diversity would presumably have more students who are used to sharing life with people of other races.

Also, when there is more socioeconomic diversity, students can find common ground on social class with people of different races. To oversimplify, rich White kids can hang out with rich Black kids, and low-income White kids will socialize sometimes with low-income Black kids. However, if all of the White kids are rich, they're more likely to cluster among themselves, which makes it harder for everyone to cross racial divides: Studies by Thomas Espenshade, Alexandria Radford, and Elizabeth Aries indicate that affluent White students have the most homogeneous friendship groups. These are a few possible reasons for why class diversity affects race relations in college; we definitely need more research on the topic.

So do our findings mean that race is irrelevant? Definitely not. Prior to running the data, we were curious if the class diversity variable would wipe out the effect associated with racial diversity in a student body. Could we get to positive race relations if we only accounted for class diversity? The answer was a definitive no. Race and class diversity are related to each other, but not interchangeable. In our study, having a racially diverse student body was strongly and directly linked to student interaction across race, and the effect was stronger and more consistent than the effect associated with class diversity. Our research shows that both race and class diversity in a student body are needed to support positive race relations on campus: Class complements, but cannot replace, the role of race.

Our research shows how race and class cannot be an "either-or" conversation. Class matters, not just because we need to broaden access to higher education, but because of its supporting role in making racial diversity work. Meaningful recognition of both are needed to prepare students for citizenship in a diverse democracy.

Julie J. Park is an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education (Rutgers University Press).

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