The Impact of Diversity Courses
Measuring the Impact of a Diversity Requirement on Students' Level of Racial Prejudice
The lack of progress in improving race relations in recent years has become a topic of national concern as evidenced by President Clinton's White House Initiative on Race and Racial Reconciliation. Many colleges and universities recognize that they can play a pivotal role in addressing these enduring problems. Not only do institutions of higher education provide numerous students with their first opportunity for meaningful cross-racial interaction, but they also strive through their curricula to increase civic responsibility as well as academic knowledge. For these reasons, a substantial number of colleges and universities have employed a wide range of approaches to overcome the reality of the nation's racial divide.
One popular approach involves the inclusion of diverse/multicultural traditions in the curriculum. Many campuses now require that all students take at least one course that addresses issues of diversity, and some require that students take one course that covers issues of diversity here in the U.S. and another one that addresses global diversity issues. Some of these courses may not focus explicitly on race or ethnicity but may address other group differences. The latter curricular strategy assumes that by developing students' ability to think more critically about one significant difference in U.S. society, it will transfer well to thinking about other differences. In other words, enhancing students' ability to think critically about class differences, for example, will also improve one's ability to appreciate cultural pluralism and to analyze inequalities that are manifested through racial, gender, or sexual orientation differences. While this reasoning might be widely accepted by educators, there have been few empirical studies on the educational effects of diversity course requirements.
I recently completed a research study designed to measure the extent to which diversity course requirements reduce racial prejudice and promote intergroup understanding. Since even subtle racial biases can shape social policies and cross-racial interactions, they have the capacity to either widen or close the racial divide. The focus on race in this study, however, should not imply that improving race relations is the primary or only goal of diversity requirements. Instead, I examined racial prejudice because challenging students' assumptions to improve cross-racial understanding, communication, and interaction ought to be important educational priorities in a democratic society, especially given current national concerns.
Methodology and Context of Study
Using a cohort of students in the Spring, 1999 semester, I conducted a study to determine if a diversity requirement at a public university in the Northeast diminished racial prejudice, particularly toward African Americans. This university was an ideal site to conduct this study because it has had a diversity requirement for all undergraduate students since the Fall of 1992 and had a racially diverse student body (approximately 33 percent of students were students of color) at that time. The latter ensured that racial issues would not be addressed simply in the abstract but would have some immediate campus relevance.
The university's approach to the U.S. diversity course requirement was campus-wide and multi-disciplinary. To fulfill it, students can choose from approximately 25 approved courses offered each semester across various departments. These courses are approved by a review committee comprised of faculty members. The over-riding criterion for approval is that at least one of the domains (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation) that defines diversity is a central rather than a peripheral or supplemental theme in the course. The original supporters of this requirement held that issues related to the different domains intersected and argued that the learned knowledge could be applied across other domains. Therefore, the diversity requirements and the corresponding courses were deliberately designed to be broad and varied.
To conduct the study, I adapted a widely used and statistically sound measure, the Modern Racism Scale, to assess students' level of prejudice toward African Americans. Consistent with prior findings affirming the benefits of related curricular efforts, completing a diversity course requirement significantly reduced students' level of racial prejudice. Those students who had nearly completed their requirements made more favorable judgments of African Americans than those who had just started their requirement.
Specifically, I found that compared to those students who were just beginning their diversity requirements, those who had nearly completed it disagreed more strongly that African American have gotten more economically than they deserve and that discrimination against African Americans is no longer a problem.
Beyond Race: Reducing Multiple Types of Prejudice
Interestingly enough, this effect occurred even though some of the courses in the study did not specifically focus on African American issues but primarily examined either other racial groups or other high stake categories such as gender or class. Moreover, the courses in the sample were not limited to only one disciplinary perspective but addressed their primary topics from the vantage point of different academic disciplines (e.g. English, philosophy, sociology, etc.).
On the one hand, given the course variability in the sample, the findings most likely underestimate the potential of diversity requirements for reducing racial prejudice. The effects are probably much stronger for courses that specifically address issues of race or ethnicity, and even stronger for those that focus on African American experiences. On the other hand, given the course variability, the findings also suggest that learning about one significant difference in U.S. society (i.e. gender or class differences) might also transfer well to thinking about other differences and subsequently reduce multiple types of prejudice. The results indicate that diversity course requirements are good vehicles for shaping students' racial views and assumptions toward improved race relations even though the actual topics and the way they are addressed in courses may be broad and varied.
These findings lend support to the necessity of providing undergraduates with opportunities to critically examine cultural and social groups previously marginalized or ignored in the curriculum so that students can challenge their prejudicial views and assumptions. These educational interests are consonant with the broader shared goals of enhancing students' critical thinking and reasoning skills.
Psychologists like Oakes, Turner, and Brigham have argued that racial stereotypes and other faulty assumptions have been linked to "cognitive deficiency" and "unreasonable generalizations." These claims are based largely on the information-processing models of social judgment which maintain that judgments about racial groups are formulated through a number of psychological stages and each of these stages is highly susceptible to bias and error. An extrapolation of these models suggests that if students are given meaningful opportunities to thoroughly inspect biased and erroneous information and to more effectively process new information, their judgments about different racial groups will be both less stereotypic and more positive. Such educational opportunities are indeed what institutions of higher education are best equipped to provide. Diversity requirements are one effective strategy colleges and universities can use.
Many colleges and universities embrace a broad educational mission that extends beyond campus walls and that addresses divisive racial perceptions and assumptions at the core of America's racial discord. Future research in this area will not only help to underscore the pivotal role of higher education in improving racial dynamics, but will also provide valuable curricular insights into how institutions can effectively reduce prejudice and improve communication across racial and ethnic lines.
This article is excerpted from a paper presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference (November, 1999) called "The Impact of Undergraduate Diversity Course Requirement on Students' Level of Racial Prejudice." Requests for a copy of the entire paper and citations should be sent to: Mitchell J. Chang, Higher Education and Organizational Change, University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 3123 Moore Hall, Box 951521, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521.
Sources: Brigham, J. C. "Ethnic Stereotypes," Psychological Bulletin 76 (1971): 15-38; Oakes, P. J., & J. C. Turner, "Is Limited Information Processing Capacity The Cause of Social Stereotyping?" European Review of Social Psychology 1 (1990): 111-137.
back to top