Father James F. Keenan, SJ

Race and diversity on college campuses

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The longer students are in college, the less interested they become in promoting racial understanding. This was the central finding of a long-term, comprehensive 2013 study in which students were asked throughout their college years, “How important to you personally is helping to promote racial understanding?” The question was posed to students upon their arrival at college, at the end of their freshman year, and at the end of their senior year.  

The differences were not only according to grade but also to race. As Inside Higher Ed reported, “ranking the importance of promoting racial understanding on a four-point scale, African-American students started off with the highest score (above 3.2), followed by Hispanics (just below 3.2), Asians (around 2.9) and whites (just under 2.5). All four groups were lower at the end of their freshman year, and lower as well by their senior year.” Researchers laid bare the naive assumption that mixing students together would prompt an appreciation for racial diversity.  

These findings should have been expected, because U.S. universities were warned 15 years earlier about the need to anticipate the challenges that would arise from increasing campus diversity. A 1996 study found that “women had higher levels of openness to diversity/challenges than men, and nonwhite students had somewhat higher levels than their white counterparts.” The white college male is less interested in diversity and racial understanding than others.  

That 1996 study of roughly 4,000 students at 18 institutions over the course of four years led researchers to make a variety of fundamental assertions about what a university needed to do to become a place that promotes racial understanding.  

Mandating more culturally diverse classes alone was not the answer, though this is the route many colleges took. The problem with such courses is that students who registered for them self-selected along ethnic and racial lines; so, while they might have read about diversity in such courses, they did not actually experience it. 

The researchers argued, instead, that occasioning conversations among students of diverse backgrounds on value-laden or controversial issues had a strong effect on all students. In such a context, students could realize that race is a construct and that many of their assumptions on significant political and cultural matters were informed by the same concerns. Leaving them alone, however, only increased the negative stances from disinterest to intolerance.  

Moreover, the researchers urged that universities commit themselves to promoting racial understanding as a good that needed to be visible only in particular classes but in the actual college culture. 

What I found most interesting, however, were researchers’ concerns about institutional policies. They recommended programs that sensitized faculty, administrators and students to what constitutes racial discrimination and to couple that with clear evidence that such discrimination is never acceptable in campus life.  

Boasting diversity without having accompanying programs is a recipe for difficulties, particularly for newly arrived minorities. If a university wants a nondiscriminatory racial environment, it will not happen on its own; the administration will have to create the contexts for learning how diversity can work. 

As we have seen across America, racial mixing needs to be aimed at racial understanding. Administrators have largely underestimated these challenges, thinking that student-affairs or campus ministry could create these environments. 

If university presidents and their boards do not show that they are clearly opposed to racial discrimination, then their inaction serves to validate those who resist such attempts at integration. Administrators, with faculty, are going to have to invite students out of their self-selecting practices and into the habit of entering into more diverse environments. 

Finally, these studies show that besides being the right thing to do, promoting diversity enhances student development. Where diversity functioned well, that is, at universities where students have diverse peers in the learning environment, their abilities to engage in more complex thinking and to consider multiple perspectives evidently improve.  

They concluded that “providing opportunities for quality interaction and an overall climate of support results not only in a better racial climate but also in important learning outcomes for students.” In a word, diversity could actually be good news for educational goals.


  • colleges and universities