The Supreme Court’s recent decision to hear Fisher v. University of Texas for a second time has reignited fears that affirmative action might be coming to an end. Supporters of race-conscious admission policies are preparing themselves for the worst—the destruction, in their eyes, of one of the main conduits for social mobility in the United States. Opponents of race-based affirmative action, the plaintiff of this case, Abigail Fisher, included, are once again hopeful that their view of fairness—awarding admission based on “merit,” rather than race—will take precedence over preserving racial diversity in college admissions.
In these debates over merit and diversity, or fairness and social mobility, one thing seems to be a given: maintaining diversity in higher education matters significantly to universities. A New York Times article describes the renewed concerns of many universities that they will face a difficult and costly path toward maintaining diverse student bodies if race-based affirmative action were to be struck down. Senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation notes that challenges to race-based affirmative action actually offer universities the perfect opportunity to increase diversity, in the form of both race and class, if they simply revise their affirmative action policies to focus on income, rather than race. There is already evidence of a trend in this direction. Last year, the New York Times released a ranking of colleges that was based on the economic diversity of their student body (measured by their share of Pell Grant recipients). Following release of the results, low-ranked universities, one of which was Washington University in St. Louis, were prompted to take action and seek ways to boost their number of low-income students.
Racial Diversity Helps All Races
The importance of campus diversity is a mainstream narrative among most institutions of higher education, yet the reasoning behind this importance remains largely understated or unconvincing outside of the world of academia. Instead, any changes that would potentially decrease campus diversity, such as those raised by the Supreme Court case in question, are often argued against in the name of social justice and fairness for underrepresented groups. Likewise, universities with more homogeneous student bodies are criticized for providing fewer opportunities for social mobility. While these are highly important aspects of campus diversity, we should not forget the seemingly obvious, yet rather complex, role of diversity in producing positive educational outcomes for students of all races and backgrounds.
Diversity in higher education is often framed in three ways: structural diversity, or the composition of the student body; classroom diversity, or curricula about and interactions between diverse people in the classroom; and informal interactional diversity, or the interactions among students of different backgrounds outside the classroom. A seminal study published in 2002, which first laid out the above framework, found that informal interactions with peers of other racial groups significantly enhanced an individual’s learning outcomes. That is, it improved intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship and cultural engagement, and academic skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and writing—for students of all races. In other words, interacting with diverse peers outside a classroom setting directly benefits students, making them better scholars, thinkers, and citizens.
Another study found that informal, interpersonal interactions among students of variant races had larger positive effects on cognitive development than interactions among students of different class, gender, and other non-race factors. Students who interacted with racially and ethnically diverse peers showed significant gains in cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving.
Furthermore, the advantageous effects of a student’s college diversity experience remain relevant and persist long after graduation. One study followed students for thirteen years after they graduated from college, measuring the impact of college diversity experiences like participating in a racial or cultural awareness workshop or taking an ethnic studies course. These experiences were found to have a positive effect on measures of personal growth, sense of purpose in life, recognition of racism, and participation in volunteer work during an individual’s adult life. Although additional research needs to be conducted in this area, it is evident that exposure to racial diversity in college has long-lasting effects on overall well-being later in life.
The Promising Benefits of Socioeconomic Diversity
As the socioeconomic diversity of colleges and universities has been drawn into the spotlight, scholars have started to investigate its associated impact on student outcomes. The major question now is, do different types of diversity—such as race-based versus class-based—yield the same educational benefits and outcomes? And does structural socioeconomic diversity have an effect on interactions among racially diverse peers, inside and outside the classroom?
Initial attempts to answer those questions have revealed that socioeconomic diversity does indeed benefit all students and that both racial and socioeconomic integration work in tandem to enhance and optimize outcomes related to racial diversity. A recent study found that an institution with a socioeconomically diverse student body has more frequent interactions across class, which in turn are associated with higher levels of cross-racial interactions and engagement in diversity-related activities overall. In short, socioeconomic integration in higher education is not just a noble goal; it has a real capacity to enrich all students’ experiences with campus diversity.
Despite existing research that demonstrates how college diversity is critical for everyone, especially for reasons beyond issues of fairness and social mobility, diversity in higher education, remains a complicated issue. Class matters, as well as race. Fisher v. University of Texas and the debate over affirmative action give us the perfect opportunity to look again, and to look more carefully, at what diversity in higher education truly means—and why it matters for every student.