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Research Finds Americans Value Diversity Education

The Ford Foundation created the Campus Diversity Public Information Project to develop effective ways to communicate the value of diversity in higher education and to help those who value diversity communicate more effectively. As part of the project, the public opinion research firm EDK Associates of New York City conducted focus groups with a representative sample of the "attentive public" around the country in 1994 to explore public attitudes about diversity education.

Elway Research of Seattle conducted additional focus groups in the project's two pilot sites, Seattle and Philadelphia, in 1996. Elway Research will conduct a statewide poll on diversity in higher education in Washington this spring. The results will be presented in a future issue of Diversity Digest.

The focus groups revealed that, although Americans believe that our nation's diversity is one of its greatest strengths, they also think it poses significant challenges. Focus group participants emphasized the importance of understanding the attitudes and cultures of people different from themselves. They seemed to search for the balance between defining a common American identity and acknowledging, respecting, and rewarding our differences, according to EDK Associates.

Americans think and talk about diversity in society much more than they think and talk about diversity in higher education. Many do not know how to define a multicultural education. Some see it as a vehicle to fight ignorance and prejudice. Many say this type of education should begin early, and providing it for the first time at the college level is "too late." It could also be said that reading and writing must begin at an early age. College-level reading and writing, of course, involves much more complexity and sophistication than one expects of an elementary or high school student. The same can be said of courses on diversity at the college level.

Participants view a college education as a route to a more secure economic future. Although many people recognize the importance of diversity education, fewer support diversity requirements-in part, because some people tend to oppose requirements of any kind. Some fear that emphasizing diversity at the college level might detract from the "traditional" education that would prepare students to succeed in the increasingly competitive job market.

The focus groups in Seattle and Philadelphia were remarkably consistent. More than half the participants in both cities said they believe that "socially, America is growing apart." Most expect that in twenty years their world will be more diverse than it is today. Few people think our society is doing a good job of preparing for the future.

When asked whether diversity should be incorporated into studies on science, world history, literature, American history, and the arts, two-thirds of participants in a focus group of white Seattle residents agreed. In Philadelphia, four in ten participants in a white focus group and seven in ten participants in a mixed-race focus group agreed.

Focus group members in both cities were asked whether they think that diversity education "does more to bring society together than to drive it apart." By overwhelming margins, participants said learning about diversity brings people together.

Overall, participants recognize that our society is becoming more diverse and our economy is increasingly influenced by global factors. Most see this growing diversity and economic interdependence as a fact, rather than a problem. They support diversity education that addresses these issues.

According to Elway Research, most people see diversity as a positive factor on campus life and for individual growth. However, people disagree strongly as to the impact of diversity on academic standards and core curriculum. The challenge for supporters of diversity education is to educate the public that diversity education can and should be part of an academically rigorous college experience that prepares students to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

RESEARCH FINDS THAT AMERICANS THINK:
  • Our world and our economy are changing rapidly. Diversity education can help build both a strong society and a strong economy.
  • College is not the primary place for people to learn about diversity; this kind of education should begin earlier.
  • "Helping individuals reach their full potential" is the highest objective for higher education. Diversity education wins support when it is related to personal growth.
  • People who have recently graduated from college and those who have taken diversity courses tend to be even more supportive of diversity education than the general public.

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