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U.S. News and World Report Discovers Campus Diversity: The Good News and The Bad
Carol Geary Schneider, President, AAC&U

In its latest round of rankings, U.S. News and World Report has included a separate "campus diversity" measurement. This is a significant development. The editors at this publication see that the diversity of a college's student body is an increasingly valued characteristic for prospective students. In the current climate of hostility to affirmative action, this recognition is important and U.S. News and World Report should be commended for it. As they put it, "collegebound youths and their parents who think that learning from people of different backgrounds is an integral part of the university experience will want to consider the diversity of the student body when choosing a school."

Unfortunately, the U.S. News and World Report diversity ranking makes use of a static, even mechanical, rendition of what campus diversity actually entails, what its benefits might actually be, and the essential role it plays in any measurement of the "excellence" of a student's education.

The problem is that U.S. News and World Report defines campus diversity solely in demographic terms. They assign a "diversity index" based on the total proportion of minority students (not including international students) and the mix of racial/ethnic groups. This measure does not begin to capture the complexity of campus diversity. As Daryl Smith puts it, diversity "encompasses complex differences within the campus community and also in the individuals that compose that community. It includes such important and intersecting dimensions of human identity as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, and ability" (Diversity Digest, Spring, 1998).

In an early article, I argued that,

Diversity is a complex issue that touches every aspect of our lives in society and on campus. Many Americans think it means race alone, or perhaps race and gender. But diversity issues actually challenge educators to reexamine our most fundamental assumptions about significant knowledge, cultural identity and privilege, connections across difference, inclusive community, and democratic principles. Above all, diversity asks us to address the links between education and a developed sense of responsibility to one another. (Diversity Digest, Fall, 1996)

A true diversity ranking would assess the extent to which students are, in fact, developing the inclination and the capacity to learn from one another's histories and hopes, no less the many ways that they can learn from each other's present circumstances, and often vastly different experiences of the world. In this newsletter, AAC&U has sought to highlight the many different forms of learning that diversity makes possible. It seems unlikely that prospective students would know to even ask about the availability of these innovative learning opportunities. So it is unfortunate that they are completely hidden from view in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

This should perhaps not surprise us since, as many others have noted, the overall U.S. News and World Report rankings generally fail to capture the complexity or real quality of the actual learning environment. For the most part, they measure prestige and a host of quantitative "inputs"--test scores, faculty-student ratios, class size, student selectivity, alumni giving, and financial resources. Some of these characteristics may, indeed, correlate with a quality educational experience, but they tell us nothing about what students are actually learning or what skills they are developing--the final measure of educational quality.

U.S. News and World Report also perpetuates an all-too familiar division between campus diversity, on the one hand, and what they call "academic excellence" on the other hand. Arrestingly, their diversity rankings and the criteria that define them are held totally separate from the national and regional institutional rankings. But many academic leaders believe, and research highlighted in this publication confirms, that campus diversity is, in fact, an intrinsic component of academic excellence in today's world.

Prospective students can, indeed, use U.S. News and World Report to gain some knowledge about the demographics of the student bodies at schools they are considering attending, but it is incumbent on each of us to communicate more clearly the kinds of campus practices that make diversity a significant benefit to students, institutions, communities, and our nation.

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Carol Schneider

Carol Geary Schneider, President, AAC&U

About AAC&U

AAC&U is the leading national association devoted to advancing and strengthening liberal learning for all students, regardless of academic specialization or intended career. One of its five key priorities is establishing diversity as an educational and civic priority.

From AAC&U Board Statement on liberal learning

AAC&U believes that by its nature...liberal learning is global and pluralistic. It embraces the diversity of ideas and experiences that characterize the social, natural and intellectual world. To acknowledge such diversity in all its forms is both an intellectual commitment and a social responsibility, for nothing less will equip us to understand our world and to pursue fruitful lives.