Diversity in Higher Education: Why Corporate America Cares
"We live in a global marketplace." Many of us hear this expression every day, but we may not pause to think about what global means, especially in any discussion of diversity in the U.S. workforce.
"Global marketplace" means that consultants in New York and Tokyo, linked instantly by phone, fax, e-mail, and the Web, can work together on a business transaction in South Africa. It means that millions of people around the world can watch the same Discovery Channel television documentary (and see the same ad for a Visa credit card) at the same local time and in their own languages.1
And the global marketplace isn't just "over there." It's right here. At a Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., for example, the workers speak at least 36 languages.2 At a public high school in Annandale, Virginia, the 2,200 students represent 72 countries.3 By 2025, the additional 72 million members of the U.S. population will include 32 million Latinos, 12 million African Americans, and 7 million Asians.4
The emergence of a global economy and the increasing diversity of the U.S. population are changing the face of the U.S. workforce. To meet the needs of customers across the planet's 30-odd time zones, American companies are working faster, cheaper, and smarter than ever before. And whether in Beijing or Baltimore, global competition has empowered diverse consumers with more choices. Consumers want products that reflect their lifestyles and values. They want to see faces like theirs in product advertisements, and in the showrooms and boardrooms of the companies whose products they buy.
For corporate America, meeting these challenges has affected hiring patterns. Many U.S. companies quietly use affirmative action hiring policies. Some do so in order to become more effective, creative, and flexible; some do so because they believe in it; and others do so as a defense against lawsuits or to meet certain hiring targets.
Whatever their reasons for seeking a diverse workforce, these companies will find themselves better able to compete. The U.S. economy is shifting from manufacturing toward white-collar services and now places a premium on social interaction among workers and between workers and customers. Personal, customized services in offices, in education, and in health care cannot be performed in assembly-line fashion.
These services are the drivers of today's economy, creating a pool of 54 million U.S. office workers who account for 41 percent of the nation's 133 million jobs. Approximately 66 percent of these workers have at least some college education.
And when these workers are both diverse and empowered, they have a striking effect on business. Some examples are backed up by hard evidence:
Research by Rosabeth Moss Kanter and others shows that organizations employing diverse work groups tend to be more innovative and flexible by nature.5 Research by Charlan Nemeth and others shows that even the mere presence of a minority viewpoint on a work team can stimulate creativity among all the members by forcing reexamination of basic assumptions and encouraging more open and frank dialogue.6
Diversity improves a company's talent pool because the outreach required to find diverse job candidates improves the hiring process. Some believe that in order to hire minority workers, through affirmative action, companies must lower their standards or grant preferential treatment. In fact, research by Harry J. Holzer and David Neumark7 shows that companies that actively recruit women and minority workers search more widely and screen their candidates more intensively.
Diversity prevents companies from sliding into "groupthink." Companies with diverse workforces can capitalize on those employees' differences by assigning tasks to different staff members based on their unique talents or perspectives. Diversity not only helps create good ideas, but it can help prevent companies from unwittingly offending potential customers or overlooking market opportunities.
Diversity is especially important for companies that do business overseas. Employees with different values, cultures, and religious beliefs are more likely to appreciate the need to tailor products to foreign customers-not to assume they want or need the same products as Americans.
In addition, many Latinos and other minorities are multilingual, a valuable skill in the global marketplace. While English has emerged as the de facto language of international business, customers naturally prefer doing business in their own language, when possible. Bilingualism shouldn't be considered a drawback; it should be considered an advantage.
So, more than ever, corporate America has a reason to care about diversity in the workplace. And, as a result, we must persuade corporate America to care about diversity in higher education. If we don't produce diverse college graduates, qualified diverse workers won't be available for hire.
And increasingly, "qualified" is synonymous with "college-educated." A growing share of jobs require college-level skills--currently almost two-thirds of all jobs employ workers with some college-level skills, and three-quarters of the new jobs created between now and 2006 will require similarly skilled workers. By that time, over 80 percent of the nation's "elite" jobs--will require a bachelor's degree.
But there is a long way to go in terms of making U.S. college campuses truly diverse. There is some good news: From 1973 to 1996, the percentage of Latinos awarded B.A. degrees grew from 6.6 to 12 percent for men and 6.1 to 13.4 percent for women. For African Americans, this increase was from 6 to 15.6 percent for men and from 8.4 to 19.8 percent for women. Because minorities will comprise an increasing share of the nation's burgeoning 18- to 24-year-old population, the number of African American undergraduates is likely to rise from 1.7 to 2.1 million (23 percent) from 1995 to 2015, while the number of Latinos students is expected to climb from 1.4 to 2.5 million, a remarkable 73 percent increase.8
But there is bad news, too. Diversity cannot increase unless the participation rate of minority students increases, too. If current trends continue, African Americans will make up 14.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds by 2015, but will account for only 11.9 percent of undergraduates. Similarly, Latinos will make up 18.9 percent of the 18- to 24-year-olds, but will account for only 13.1 percent of undergraduates. That means there will still be 250,000 African Americans and 550,000 Latinos "missing" from the nation's college campuses 15 years from now.
Clearly, there is no one way to reverse the reasons, cultural and economic, that many minority students get left behind in the quest for a college degree. Programs such as affirmative action are crucial to getting more minorities through the college system and into the economy's better jobs. In addition, a "strivers" admissions model being developed by Educational Testing Service that identifies students who post impressive achievements despite economic and cultural obstacles may be an emerging alternative to traditional affirmative action programs. More research into ways to promote greater diversity in the nation's colleges is also needed.
Diversity on college campuses doesn't just benefit minorities. Students that are taught in schools with diverse faculties and with diverse student bodies become better critical thinkers, better problem solvers, better communicators, and better team players. Diverse colleges don't prepare only diverse students for the working world; they prepare all students--including those from the white mainstream.9
So improving diversity on campus and in the workforce is not just a "nice" social or political goal. It is a necessity--for both social and economic reasons--that must be conveyed to elected leaders and the public. In the 21st century, the United States is well positioned to continue as the world's preeminent economy, with diversity giving us a unique advantage. To maintain our competitive edge, corporate America needs employees that are increasingly creative and agile. To meet that need, we require a pool of diverse workers with college educations to match.
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