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How Colleges Support Their Diverse Student Bodies

Diversity is more than putting people of different backgrounds in the same room. As the American Council on Education argues, diversity is essential to a rich educational experience and a healthy society. Today, colleges are teaching students with more varied backgrounds than ever before. This means that the world of higher education has had to reconsider ideas it once took for granted. How have schools changed to support their marginalized students, and what more needs to be done?

Diversity Should Be Reflected in Coursework

One of the most important steps schools are taking is to ensure that their curricula reflect the many different types of students sitting in their classrooms. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), “On the first day of classes, when students browse the syllabi created by their professors, do they see readings that mainly reflect white, conventional perspectives? Including works by diverse authors is essential to maximizing student learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, perspective-taking, and appreciation of differences.” When students see their own experiences in their academic work, they know that they are valued in the classroom.

There is statistical proof that identity-focused classes help students become more engaged learners. A Stanford University study of at-risk high schoolers showed that when students took ethnic studies courses, they made significant academic gains—their attendance improved by 21% and their GPAs improved by 1.4 points. These high school students are the same ones who will one day participate in higher education, so colleges should take advantage of the power behind diverse curricula.

Students Need A Diverse Faculty and Administration, Too

Though the students attending college have only become more diverse, the faculty members and administrators who run their institutions have not. The AAC&U reports that 73.2% of full-time faculty members and over 80% of senior executives are white. These statistics indicate that students of color do not have authority figures on campus who can relate to their experiences.

The literature agrees: a 2017 study says that “a diverse faculty is necessary in recruiting students of color to higher education because these students want to enroll in universities with diverse faculties so they are less likely to experience isolation. In addition, a diverse faculty contributes to the development of novel scholarship and approaches to teaching. Individuals from different cultural backgrounds bring with them new ways of thinking, researching, and writing.” More perspectives mean more new ideas. 

Affinity Spaces Provide Students with Identity-Based Support 

Many schools have “affinity spaces” where students with the same or similar identities can come together for discussion, activity, and reflection. Some common examples of affinity spaces are LGBTQ student centers and African American student centers. Affinity spaces can be havens for marginalized students who feel misunderstood by many of their peers. Writing in Liberal Education, Stephen John Quaye and Shaun R. Harper note that students used their black culture center “to decompress and reflect on instances of marginality that repeatedly arise in their predominantly white classroom environments.”

As time goes on, more campuses are adding affinity spaces to the resources they have available to marginalized students. Campus Explorer reports that there are over one hundred LGBTQ student centers in America today and that thirty-eight colleges have gender-neutral housing available in support of their LGBTQ students.

Diversity Is a Work in Progress

Diverse student bodies will benefit both the higher education system and our society as a whole. The recent influx of students from different backgrounds and experiences shows that colleges are moving in the right direction, although there is still more work to do.

Photo by the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center of the University of Washington, via Flickr.

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