Treating diversity as common good ‘less help for black students’

Students fare better when campuses frame equity as quest for justice, Princeton analysis finds

April 13, 2021
Student diversity
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Black college students fare worse at institutions that tout diversity policies as a benefit for all students rather than as a matter of fundamental fairness, a Princeton University team has found.

The analysis used a combination of graduation data and surveys of 1,200 people at nearly 200 universities to raise caution over the common argument by academic leaders that diversity is a universal benefit.

Instead, the authors found, black students fare better when institutions more clearly frame their diversity efforts as a pursuit of moral justice for minority populations.

That distinction, said one author, Jordan Starck, a doctoral student in psychology and social policy, “may manifest at several levels within an organisation, including institutional decision-making, interpersonal interactions or individual attitudes and behaviours”.

Mr Starck acknowledged that the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), should be considered “correlational”, with more study needed to show exactly how differences in stated commitments to diversity lead to more or less racially equitable outcomes.

Mr Starck produced the work along with two Princeton psychology professors in a bid to understand the common political argument that diversity within an institution benefits everyone involved.

The argument often is raised for legal reasons, the Princeton team notes, because the US Supreme Court has consistently endorsed diversity policies that promise a broad public benefit.

It’s possible, Mr Starck and his team acknowledge, that universities publicly offer arguments of widespread benefit but behave internally in ways that demonstrate genuine concern for remedying historical racial inequities.

The study, however, includes surveys of campus admissions officers who often acknowledged that their institutions see diversity more as a benefit for their university as a whole than as a gain for their minority communities, Mr Starck said.

Those surveys posed questions of students and others at 188 campus communities aimed at assessing how well students in their midst are faring emotionally and academically, he said.

“We think that the ways in which institutions embrace diversity shape all sorts of downstream factors, such as their decision-making and campus climates, in ways that differentially serve underrepresented racial minority students,” Mr Starck said.

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