Research Shows Benefits of Linking
Diversity and Civic Goals
By Sylvia Hurtado, professor and director,
Higher Education Research Institute, University of California,
Diversity initiatives are still sometimes thought to
be marginal to the real work of institutions, a “stand-alone”
goal, or even too political for broad-based acceptance.
But such initiatives are essential if we are committed
to developing a tolerant workforce, producing engaged
citizens, and advancing the progress of our society.
When all students learn about diversity, they will be
better prepared to negotiate difference, act responsibly,
and make ethical decisions in an increasingly complex
and diverse world.
Those of us engaged in advancing the public service
mission of institutions must begin to consider the important
role that diversity plays in our work and our ability
to contribute to the development of underserved communities.
We can find allies among civic engagement proponents
and should begin to consider how service learning is
a vehicle for furthering diversity learning goals. Working
together, we need to develop common goals for undergraduate
education and faculty development that include working
with diverse communities inside and outside the classroom.
Many campuses already have a substantial array of initiatives
that address diversity and civic engagement. However,
greater integration across units and additional program
coherence is necessary to explicitly address undergraduate
preparation for participation in a diverse democracy.
Fortunately, we have empirical findings that strongly
support the beneficial link between campus diversity
initiatives and educating for citizenship. Data from
the Preparing College Students for a Diverse Democracy
project show that campus practices that facilitate student
interaction with diversity promote the development of
complex thinking and socio-cognitive and democratic
skills.* Following are some of the project’s specific
- Positive, informal interactions with peers from
diverse backgrounds resulted in student preferences
for more complex thinking about people and their behavior,
increased cultural and social awareness, and improvements
in perspective-taking skills (the ability to see the
world from someone else’s perspective).
- Significant changes were also associated with increases
in students’ democratic sensibilities, including
their pluralistic orientation (the ability to work
with diverse people and viewpoints), interest in poverty
issues, and concern for the public good.
- In contrast, students who had negative interactions
with peers from diverse backgrounds (involving conflict
or hostility) were not only least skilled in intergroup
relations, but also demonstrated lower scores on the
outcomes, suggesting they were least likely to develop
the habits of mind needed to function in a diverse
- Students were likely to revert to familiar and solidified
positions when encountering conflict in intergroup
relations, suggesting that educators need to assist
students in understanding and developing constructive
ways of dealing with intergroup conflict.
- Students who enrolled in diversity courses or participated
in diversity-related extracurricular programming scored
consistently higher on the majority of educational
outcomes in the study. This included democratic sensibilities
such as interest in poverty issues, concern for the
public good, and sense of the importance of making
a civic contribution.
- Taking a diversity course in the first two years
of college was also associated with increased likelihood
of voting in a federal or state election, while participation
in extracurricular activities related to diversity
was associated with voting in student elections and
increases in leadership skills.
- Service-learning courses increase students’
concern for the public good, their sense of the importance
of making a civic contribution, and their leadership
- Service learning may have an indirect effect on
many more outcomes, and such effects are likely to
be partially dependent on students’ skills with
- Participation in intergroup dialogue (opportunities
for facilitated, extended discussions about diversity)
was associated with increases in students’ perspective-taking
skills, the development of a pluralistic orientation,
interest in poverty issues, and a belief that conflict
enhances a democracy (rather than detracts from democratic
These findings suggest that specific campus practices
can help students integrate their learning, merge experience
with knowledge, and improve intergroup relations skills.
Most significantly, they show that we are able to observe
and document the educational effect of diversity on
a broad range of outcomes. These are compelling reasons
to initiate conversations across campus to create productive
links that can further the goals of undergraduate education
and the public service mission of institutions.
Our students live in a diverse and complex world, and
we have yet to realize the goal of a truly pluralistic
democracy in American society. Higher education is largely
responsible for producing the next generation of leaders
who can manage people and ideas in diverse workplaces.
These leaders must possess the values, skills, and knowledge
to devise creative solutions to social problems and
address the widening social and economic gaps. We have
a responsibility to produce graduates of all races and
ethnicities who can be agents of change, who can help
to identify and reduce social inequality and barriers
to participation in our democracy, and who understand,
through experience, the link between diversity and civic
For more information about the Preparing College Students
for a Diverse Democracy project, see www.umich.edu/~divdemo.
* It is important to note that our statistical
analyses controlled for student predispositions on each
of the outcomes we monitored. We were interested in
those activities and experiences that contributed to
the value-added change on an array of cognitive, socio-cognitive,
and democratic outcomes.