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New Research on The Benefits of Diversity in College and Beyond: An Empirical Analysis
Patricia Gurin, Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan


A racially and ethnically diverse university student body has far-ranging and significant benefits for all students, non-minorities and minorities alike. Students learn better in such an environment and are better prepared to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society once they leave school. In fact, patterns of racial segregation and separation historically rooted in our national life can be broken by diversity experiences in higher education.

These are not assumptions but rather conclusions built on strong evidence derived from three parallel empirical analyses of university students, as well as from existing social science theory and research. The new research was conducted last year at the University of Michigan and will be used as part of my testimony as an expert defense witness in the lawsuits brought against the University's admission policies.

An objective reading of the research, the most broad and extensive series of empirical analyses ever conducted on college students in relation to this issue, will answer many questions that have lingered during our nation's debate over the merits of diversity in higher education. Primary among those is whether the need to ensure diversity constitutes a compelling government interest and whether admission policies that help ensure diversity are thus essential.

Students come to universities at a critical stage of their development--a time during which they define themselves in relation to others and experiment with different social roles before making permanent commitments to occupations, social groups, and intimate personal relationships. In addition, for many students college is the first sustained exposure to an environment other than their home communities.

Higher education is especially influential when its social milieu is different from the environment from which the students come and when it is diverse and complex enough to encourage intellectual experimentation. Students learn more and think in deeper, more complex ways in a diverse educational environment.

Extensive research in social psychology demonstrates that active engagement in learning cannot be taken for granted. In fact, much "thought" is actually the automatic result of previously learned routines; most people do not employ effortful and conscious modes of thought very often. For an educational institution, the challenge obviously is to find ways to engage the deeper, less automatic mode of thinking.

Complex thinking occurs when people encounter a novel situation for which, by definition, they have no script, or when the environment demands more than their current scripts provide. Racial diversity in a college or university student body provides the very features that research has determined are central to producing the conscious mode of thought educators demand from their students.

This is particularly true at the University of Michigan because most of the University's students come to Ann Arbor from segregated backgrounds. For most students, then, Michigan's social diversity is new and unfamiliar, a source of multiple and different perspectives, and likely to produce contradictory expectations. Social diversity is especially likely to increase effortful, active thinking when institutions of higher education capitalize on these conditions in the classroom and provide a climate in which students from diverse backgrounds frequently interact with each other.

These ideas are confirmed by my research in which I examined multi-institutional national data, the results of an extensive survey of students at the University of Michigan, and data drawn from a specific classroom program at the University of Michigan. It is clear from all three analyses that interaction with peers from diverse backgrounds are compatible with the interests of the broader community.

These effects continued after the students left the university setting. Diversity experiences during college had impressive effects on the extent to which graduates in the national study were living racially and ethnically integrated lives in the post-college world. Students with the most diversity experiences during college had the most cross-racial interactions five years after leaving college.

Taken together, the results of these original analyses are compelling. There is a consistent pattern of positive relationships between diversity in higher education and both learning and democracy outcomes. This pattern holds across racial and ethnic groups and across a broad range of outcomes. Indeed, the benefits of diversity are evident at the national level after four years of college, and five years after leaving college in the studies of Michigan students.

This consistency is unusual in my experience as a social scientist and leads me to conclude that a university composed of racially and ethnically diverse students is essential not only to the intellectual well-being of individual students but also to the long-term health of our American democracy.

The full text of Patricia Gurin's study, including references and tables, is available at http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/legal/expert/gurintoc.html.


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Students with the most diversity experiences during college had the most cross-racial interactions five years after leaving college.