Campus Diversity Improves Learning Outcomes for Everyone

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  • College increases social mobility but presents many barriers to students of color.
  • Even though enrollment has increased, graduation rates for minorities remain low.
  • Diverse campuses graduate more people of color and improve learning outcomes.
  • Policymakers plan to improve education quality at minority-serving institutions.

College enrollment, across all races and ethnic groups, is at a new high. Since 1980, the percentage of underrepresented minority students has more than doubled. Now, nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates are people of color.

Even though more minority students are enrolling in college, graduation rates remain low. The 60% average six-year college graduation rate is considered to be a crisis point. For Black and Native American students, the rate dips below 40%.

Many colleges' enrollment goals make up the bulk of their affirmative action policies. But getting underrepresented minority students to college is not the same as getting them through college.

In reality, millions of low-income minority students leave college without a degree — and saddled with debt. While enrollment quotas alone can't build more inclusive or more equitable college campuses, increased diversity is one variable that is proven to foster student success.

Low College Graduation Rates Reveal Inequity

Some of the most underrepresented groups among bachelor's degree-holders include Black, Native American, and Hispanic students, all of whom face a series of barriers to academic success typically starting in primary school.

Many underrepresented minority students attend underfunded K-12 schools that lack the experienced instructors and resources needed to effectively prepare them for college. Minority students are also more likely to be first-generation college students who are forced to navigate the college admissions process without a mentor or role model.

Minority students often attend underfunded K-12 schools that lack the resources needed to effectively prepare them for college.

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Arriving at college unprepared is one setback — being placed in remedial classes is another. Underprivileged students may feel stuck in remedial courses, seeing little progress toward their degree.

Ultimately, though, it's financial hardship that cancels many minority students' education plans. Research from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education shows that two-thirds of all Black students who drop out of college do so because of financial problems. Minority families tend to spend a greater percentage of their income on college tuition than do wealthier families.

While financial reasons may be largely responsible for college drop-out rates, some educators and student advocates blame racist campus climates. Racial microaggressions, non-diverse faculty, and a lack of inclusive curricula may cause top majors — including many STEM programs — to lose most students of color who enroll.

Campus Diversity Promotes Student Success

College should power social mobility, but vulnerable populations are often left behind.

According to the social mobility index, which measures the extent to which colleges educate economically disadvantaged students and graduate them into well-paying jobs, the U.S. "provides the least economic opportunity and mobility for its citizens" among developed countries.

Fortunately, some colleges are bucking this trend. While no one variable alone can equalize college outcomes, research shows that schools with diverse student populations and high graduation rates lift up economically disadvantaged students. Campus diversity not only fosters inclusion but also improves learning outcomes for all students.

U.S. News & World Report's diversity index, which ranges from 0-1, considers the proportion of minority students in an institution's total undergraduate student body. The closer a school's number is to 1, the more diverse its student population is.

Top 10 Most Diverse U.S. Colleges
Rank School Location Diversity Index
1 University of Hawai'i at Hilo Hilo, HI 0.77
2 Andrews University Berrien Springs, MI 0.76
3 Rutgers University-Newark Newark, NJ 0.76
4 University of Nevada Las Vegas Las Vegas, NV 0.75
5 Stanford University Stanford, CA 0.74
6 University of San Francisco San Francisco, CA 0.74
7 City College of New York New York, NY 0.73
8 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, MA 0.73
9 University of Hawai'i at Manoa Honolulu, HI 0.73
10 University of Houston Houston, TX 0.73

Source: U.S. News & World Report

Racial Equity Means Improving Educational Quality

Graduation rates have risen year over year for all groups of students, but the climb has been substantially slower for underrepresented minority students. Although the overall four-year college graduation rate increased 8% between 2000 and 2015, the graduation rate for Black and Native American students rose less than 3%.

Looking at diversity alone disguises the fact that colleges fail to graduate the majority of students of color who attend. While a diverse campus does not necessarily equal an equitable campus, it's a good start.

Even after decades of affirmative action, Black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation's top colleges than they were nearly 40 years ago. The push for low admission rates means using selective criteria — such as rigorous high school coursework and high standardized test scores — that hurts the chances of many students of color.

Closing the opportunity gap means increasing both campus diversity and funding for minority-serving institutions.

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While many colleges pay lip service to equity and inclusion, the admission practices of prestigious schools ultimately block underprivileged students from attending. Instead, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend institutions with less money to spend on building a quality curriculum.

To close this academic opportunity gap, policymakers on both sides propose increased funding to minority-serving colleges. President Donald Trump's recent FUTURE Act, as well as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's education plan, extends federal funds for tribal colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and historically Black colleges and universities.

U.S. colleges still have a long way to go in supporting students of color, but increased funding and campus diversity pave the way for allowing vulnerable student populations to prosper.