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Who Benefits from Racial Diversity in Higher Education?

The following text is excerpted from "Who Benefits from Racial Diversity in Higher Education?" by Mitchell J. Chang, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Loyola Marymount University, and Alexander W. Astin, Director, Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles.

Most educators view a diverse student body as an important educational resource that enhances the environment for learning. "[P]ublic opinion, however, regarding the educational 'benefits' of diversity has been mixed.

[Few seem] to disagree that there are educational benefits associated with race-conscious admissions that accrue to those underrepresented groups who have been historically excluded from selective institutions of higher education. Opponents of such attempts to diversify the student body, however, argue that "more deserving" white students are being denied educational opportunities and that those white students who are admitted realize no significant educational benefits from diversity. Such a belief has recently been codified into law by the Hopwood v. University of Texas School of Law ruling of the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [that suggested] that there are no significant educational benefits associated with having a racially diverse student body.

Does a racially diverse student population enhance white students' educational experiences and thereby contribute to the educational environment? The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has sought to address this question through a recent series of longitudinal empirical studies.

One of the shortcomings with previous research in this area was that it failed to provide an adequate operational definition of what racial diversity means. Conventional approaches to measuring the racial composition of the student body typically assume that an institution necessarily becomes more diverse when more nonwhite students are admitted: The more nonwhites, the more 'diverse' the student body. Since we were primarily interested in testing the educational efficacy of racial diversity, we developed operational definitions of diversity that more accurately reflected the educational rationale for diversity: to provide opportunities for all students to interact with students from different racial groups.

Socializing with someone of a different racial group or discussing racial issues contributes to the student's academic development, satisfaction with college, level of cultural awareness, and commitment to promoting racial understanding....

In one of the studies that specifically tested these new measures (Chang 1996), the results show that racial diversity has a direct positive impact on the individual white student: The more diverse the student body, the greater the likelihood that the white student will socialize with someone of a different racial group or discuss racial issues.

While it could be argued that socializing with nonwhite students is, in itself, a positive experience for white students, what is perhaps most pertinent about these findings is that socializing across racial lines and participating in discussions of racial issues have both been shown in other studies to be associated with widespread beneficial effects on a student's academic and personal development, irrespective of race (Astin 1993; Villalpando 1994). Specifically, socializing with someone of a different racial group or discussing racial issues contributes to the student's academic development, satisfaction with college, level of cultural awareness, and commitment to promoting racial understanding....

Chang also found that having a diverse student body is associated with six other attributes of the institutional climate: stronger commitment to multiculturalism, a greater faculty emphasis on racial and gender issues in their research and in the classroom, and more frequent student involvement in cultural awareness workshops and ethnic studies courses. What is of special interest here is that these same environmental characteristics have also been shown to have positive impacts on student retention, overall college satisfaction, college GPA, intellectual self-confidence, and social self-confidence (Astin 1993).

Another study, which used additional survey data collected five years after college graduation, also underscores the longer-term educational benefits of cross-racial interaction for white students (Villalpando 1996). This study found that interacting with students of color during and after college has a positive effect on white males' post-college sense of social responsibility and participation in community service activities.

These recent empirical studies suggest that there is a sound educational justification for institutional attempts to create a racially diverse student body. The presence of racially underrepresented students appears to contribute to the total institutional environment and particularly to the education of white students. Thus, increasing the numbers of students of color on campus not only expands opportunities for those "additional" students of color who enroll, but also enhances the educational experiences of white students.

Alexander Astin, "Diversity and Multiculturalism on the Campus: How are Students Affected?," Change (March/April 1993)

Mitchell Chang, "Racial Diversity in Higher Education: Does a Racially Mixed Student Population Affect Educational Outcomes," (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California–Los Angeles, 1996)

Octavio Villalpando, "Comparing the Effects of Multiculturalism and Diversity on Minority and White Students' Satisfaction with College," (paper presented at the meeting of the ASHE, Tucson, Ariz., 1994)

Octavio Villalpando, "The Long Term Effects of College on Chicana and Chicano Students' 'Other Oriented' Values, Service Careers and Community Involvement," (unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California–Los Angeles, 1996).

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