What Diversity on the American Campus Can Teach Us: An Interview with Gregory Wolniak

Gregory Wolniak’s new book, How College Affects Students, synthesizes the finding of more than 1,800 research studies to offer insight on how the undergraduate experience affects students. The book looks at students’ cognitive and moral development, attitudes and values, psychosocial change, educational attainment, and economic, career, and quality of life outcomes after college, in relationship to a wide array of college student experiences and institutional environments. Diversity-related topics emerged as one of the most heavily researched areas in higher education, with a wide variety of positive effects on students learning and development during college. Wolniak, a clinical associate professor of higher education, spoke with us about diversity on the American campus.

How do you define a diverse campus?

There’s no singular definition of diversity or what it means to have a diverse college campus.  Definitions presented in the literature vary based on the questions that are asked and the issues being examined. In general, discussions of diversity tend to encompass one of four frames of reference.

Diversity is often characterized (and measured) in terms of the proportional representation of categorical distinctions within groups on campus. In terms demographic groups, for example, this could take the form of the number or percentage of African Americans, Latino/a, or White students. In terms of socioeconomic categories, this could measure the number or percentage of first-generation and Pell eligible students. This characterization is commonly referred to as structural diversity and may also include measures of diversity among faculty within a given institution. One application of the concept of structural diversity is to have a campus that reflects the same diversity as the surrounding community or larger society.

The concept of diversity can also be used to frame students’ interactions with individuals who differ from themselves along dimensions of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or social identity. This lens foregrounds interactional diversity, or so-called experiences with diversity, and allows scholars to examine students’ exposure to and engagement with diversity in curricular, co-curricular, and social contexts.

Another way we see diversity is through the eyes of researchers who focus on curricular representation and culturally responsive instruction. These discussions are concerned with the inclusion of historically marginalized perspectives across the curriculum, as well as with instructional approaches that elicit and build on the knowledge and experiences of nondominant communities.

Finally, we have come to see diversity as framed by research on higher education with respect paid to students’ attitudes and beliefs.   Many studies have set out to define and measure dimensions of campus climate for diversity, such as the extent to which an institutional environment is perceived as supportive of minority interests and organizations, as well as efforts to assess students’ perceptions of tolerance, discrimination, and inequality on campus.

Gregory Wolniak

What does an ideal campus look like?

It depends. Different colleges and universities have different purposes, varied missions, and serve a variety of groups — students, the surrounding community, and the broader society. What may be ideal in one context may not translate to another context. In other words, there is no “one-size-fits-all” description of what an ideal campus looks like, or should look like.

Having said that, if we can agree that one purpose all institutions share (or should share) is to support and cultivate learning and development among students, then we can let the research show us what an ideal campus might look like, based on empirically demonstrated relationships between campus diversity and student learning.

What can universities and colleges do to foster diversity?

This is the ultimate question. We know that rich structural diversity alone does not stimulate personal growth. Beyond notions of structural diversity on campus, institutions should commit to helping students learn how to approach their peers in ways that open up constructive exchanges in and out of the classroom, and by supporting faculty in acquiring the skills needed successfully facilitate such exchanges.

Since diversity experiences in the first year of college are predictive of later experiences and tell us how important  thoughtfully designed diversity opportunities for students can be.  We also know that expanded curricular diversity can have many positive effects. Institutions should ensure that students in all programs of study are encouraged and required to take courses on diverse cultures and perspectives.  Students also derive value from having a diverse instructional faculty that includes women and underrepresented minority group.  Taking workshops on social or cultural issues and engaging with faculty through research and teaching are also very important.

Again, what is arguably more important than the numeric representation of students of color on campus is how institutions structure and support meaningful engagement across social and racial distinctions, for all students. Research shows that perceptions of a hostile campus climate lead to lower levels of cognitive development, well-being, college satisfaction, as well as retention and graduation. While structural diversity is integral to achieving the promise of diversity, institutional leaders must cultivate and maintain a campus climate aligned with these priorities.  An institution’s emphasis on and commitment to interactional diversity is one manifestation of—or one step towards—a supportive campus environment,  for students of different racial and ethnic identities.




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