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The Impact of Campus Diversity on Student Life: New Research from the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators

To begin to address the lack of research on the impact campus diversity is having on today's college students, especially in the areas of student residential life and co-curricular activities, the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) sponsored a project to generate a series of studies. With support from the Ford Foundation, NASPA invited campus leaders to use their campuses as sites for small campus-based research initiatives. Seventeen research projects were conducted as part of the project and NASPA has just released a report summarizing the results of the studies.

As the report suggests, findings from these studies "paint a revealing picture of diversity as it is being experienced on college campuses around the country. Some of the findings are unexpected--even counterintuitive. Yet they reflect the real world, in which students find themselves more unlike one another, in terms of ethnicity, age, and sexual orientation, than ever before." Taken as a whole, these studies reveal much about the reality of life on today's diverse college campuses.

Student Attitudes Toward Diversity

These studies illustrate how "diversity" means a wide variety of things to different students, depending on their own age and background. Very few students believe that diversity only refers to racial or ethnic backgrounds of their fellow students. Today's students believe that truly inclusive campus environments will not be achieved unless diversity is understood as encompassing older students, persons with disabilities, and gay, lesbian and trans-gendered persons. Students also generally believe that inclusiveness is only achieved when the college atmosphere is welcoming and accepting of all.

These research studies also reveal that students tend to come to college open to diversity and wanting to learn from new experiences with it. They are generally inclined toward having positive interactions across differences and treating one another as individuals. This research also reveals, however, that "left to their own devices, students fall into the habit of associating with those most like themselves."

Settings and Experiences That Promote Diversity and Community

One of the NASPA studies examined the role of sports' participation in fostering an appreciation of diversity. This study found that "sports rank especially high among educational experiences that promote healthy respect and a sense of community among diverse students." Researchers posit that having a specific goal (winning) and a clear adversary (an opposing team) help students overcome individual differences and bond with their fellow teammates.

This research suggests further that residence halls provide excellent opportunities to teach about the value of diversity. The researchers also found, however, that housing administrators "tend to focus too much attention and energy on exact numerical representations of minorities in campus housing." Instead, the report suggests that the major concern should be the quality of the residential experience for all students. Students, themselves, are less concerned with numbers and precise racial or ethnic ratios--especially as they progress beyond the first year.

The Complexity of Identity

Students surveyed in these studies see themselves as belonging to many different groups simultaneously (e.g. racial groups, sexual identity groups, religious groups, etc.). Students also realize, however, that different groups have greater or lesser social status on campus, and they are seeking opportunities to explore their identities in the context of issues of status and acceptance as full members of the campus community.

Tips for Future Research

Listening to students' own voices is very important to crafting effective diversity initiatives and creating truly inclusive campus communities. NASPA research, however, reveals that some methods of gathering student feedback are more effective than others. Students interviewed in small groups more freely give voice to their frustrations and discontents than students answering surveys.


This research underscores that students are indeed positive and optimistic about efforts to address campus diversity. However, as the report suggests, "students tend to detect quickly whether their college or university is making a genuine commitment to diversity as a positive campus value. Students are frankly disdainful of 'paper missions' and want to see substantive proof that their institutions are making a serious effort to create a diverse and accepting community."

To order a copy of the report, "Diversity on Campus: Reports from the Field," see www.naspa.org

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