Who Really Benefits From College Student Diversity?

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“Diversity” is a slippery concept. It can be used as part of powerful discourse about access to resources and making organizations more equitable. But it can also be diluted to refer to just about any sort of difference, thrown together for any sort of purpose.

This ambiguity around diversity plays out at colleges. When they set goals and make claims about recruiting diverse groups of students, what exactly are they after, and who really benefits?

For this week’s EdSurge Podcast, we spoke with Jordan Starck, a doctoral student at Princeton University who studies race, diversity and education. His latest research looks at how colleges talk about diversity—and about why they embrace it—and how that language ends up affecting students. He lays out his findings in the prestigious journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” in a paper he co-wrote with Stacey Sinclair and J. Nicole Shelton.

Starck and his co-authors studied university websites, surveyed parents and admissions officers and looked at student outcome data to figure out what exactly is going on with policies, practices and communications about diversity.

They grouped the language universities use to justify why they value student diversity into two broad categories:

• There’s the moral rationale, which Starck says relates to “values and principles concerned with equity, justice, fairness.”

• Then there’s the instrumental rationale, which is rooted in some kind of practical benefit. What might this sound like at a university?

“Exposure to diverse perspectives can increase cognitive skills, can increase your capacity to interact and to be successful in the global, 21st-century marketplace, at jobs where you’re going to have to interact with people from different parts of the world from different backgrounds,” Starck says.

There are a few reasons why universities may express support for diversity using these very pragmatic terms. One has to do with rulings by the Supreme Court. Another stems from the preferences and priorities of the folks these institutions were originally designed to educate: white people.

“It is almost an illustration of systemic racism that, you know, we have these diversity rationales—instrumental rationales—that are favored uniquely by white Americans,” Starck says. “They are expected to benefit white Americans over minorities. And we have some evidence that might be the case.”

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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