Campus Diversity: Beyond Just Enrollment

At Academic Impressions, we had the opportunity recently to speak with Mary Hinton, the vice president for planning and assessment at Mount Saint Mary College. Hinton advocates adopting a more holistic perspective on campus diversity -- specifically, moving beyond a focus on demographics of incoming students. We wanted to learn more about her perspective and hear her thoughts on the practical implications of a broader approach to campus diversity.

Here are some of the points she made.

Rethinking Diversity

"We have to realize diversity isn't just an issue of access. It isn't just about getting minorities in the door. That is certainly an important step, but a diverse institution isn't just about who is enrolled. It's about who is having successful outcomes. It's about the quality of the student experience."
Mary Hinton, Mount Saint Mary College

Hinton notes that many institutions report the percentages of entering student cohorts to demonstrate the extent to which the campus has become ethnically or socioeconomically diverse -- but there are a number of other questions that need to be asked:

  • Is your institution retaining diverse students?
  • Are minority students completing credit hours at the same rate?
  • Are minority alumni employed at the same rate in their field of interest?
  • Are minority alumni achieving comparable salaries?

Hinton adds, "I recently heard a colleague say that we most often define things by how we measure them. If we define our diversity by how we measure it, and the only measure most of us have is entering students, then that becomes the primary way we think about diversity. In order to build the truly inclusive campus, we need to develop effective programming around the outcomes we want to see for our students, both while they are here and after they graduate. And to do that, we need to know where they run into challenges in the curricular and co-curricular experience -- so that we can pinpoint where to intervene."

This entails more than just reviewing data on persistence and credit hour completion. It entails surveying the student body to identify the specific challenges students of different minorities face. At one institution, the challenges may be in residence life. Perhaps students feel disconnected from the residential experience. They lack social activity, spend little time in the residential facilities, and eventually leave the institution.

At another campus, the issue may be a lack of quality academic advising for minority students. For example, perhaps your first-generation, lower-income students see a lack of role models and have difficulty connecting with their assigned advisors. "I want to emphasize that you don't need to match a student with an advisor on the basis of race or class," Hinton cautions, "but if a student is matched with an advisor with whom they have no common experience and find themselves unable to build a shared vocabulary -- if, in other words, they are not able to articulate their needs to that advisor and have those needs heard and understood -- they may be less likely to thrive academically and persist at your institution."

Citing a related example of a breakdown in advising, Hinton paints the scenario of an advisor who is convinced that a student's profile (test scores, GPA, socioeconomic background, etc.) denotes academic under-preparedness and predicts academic under-performance. "It is possible," Hinton explains, "for an advisor, from a place of care and concern, to misadvise a student -- for example, suggesting the student take less credit hours. Yet the research tells us that this works against retention." This is a truism -- that low expectations, even when motivated by the desire to offer support, can cause damage. Yet has your institution shared with your faculty and staff the research showing the importance of articulating high expectations for minority students -- pushing them to excel while supporting them in doing so?

A Holistic Approach

Supporting a diverse student body is not only about what programming you make available to students; it is about the message that faculty and staff convey to students about the importance of diversity to the institution.

Hinton explains the issue in this way:

"A minority student needs to be able to answer the question: Why am I on this campus? Is it so that you can check the box that you have one more African-American on your campus? Is that all I am to you? If that is the case, the student is less likely to have a great experience at your institution. The student needs to know that your institution is interested in what they can bring to the table--how their experience and potential can improve your campus community and the education you offer. Your faculty and department chairs need to be asking how the design and delivery of their courses can leverage an ethnically and socioeconomically diverse classroom, with diverse learning styles."

Steps Toward "Embedded" Diversity

"I'm conflicted about diversity offices," Hinton remarks. "I've been a chief diversity officer. On the one hand, you’re isolating diversity as separate from the rest of what the institution should be doing. The advantage is that you have a person or people dedicated to addressing the issue. The disadvantage is that diversity is not embedded into the fiber of what you’re doing; it’s siloed, rather than saying this is vital to our day-to-day work. Things that are vital are embedded throughout the institution."

While noting that the campus diversity office remains essential in cases where there is significant improvement needed in HR and equity issues and in faculty/staff development around diversity, Hinton challenges us to consider a model of "embedded" diversity.

Steps toward an embedded diversity model would include:

  • Modeling diversity at the highest level
  • Professional development for faculty and staff
  • Inclusive hiring
  • Truly engaging diversity in the curriculum -- expecting it in a syllabus
  • Campus tour -- every student goes to the multicultural center, not just students of color
  • Regularly assessing the experience of minorities on your campus (students, faculty, staff) and responding
  • Having a regular forum for open conversations and for difficult conversations about diversity at the institution

"What this would look like," Hinton suggests, "is that you may have a scenario in which a faculty member presents a syllabus, and the chair responds with: 'I don't see very diverse readings or conent on this syllabus. This content is lacking because it doesn't represent multiple perspectives, doesn't challenge students to view the subject matter from multiple perspectives.' And this scenario would occur not just because the chair had just left a diversity training workshop, but because this approach has become part of how we do things on the campus, part of how we fulfill our mission.

"Or in hiring for Residence Life, the question is no longer 'How do we hire an ethnic RA?' but 'How do we hire the richest, most excellent pool of RAs?' It's recognizing that we cannot attain inclusive excellence unless we have multiple voices and perspectives at the table. It's no longer about being diverse for the sake of being diverse; rather, you take a diversity approach because it’s the only way you will get the richest and most excellent educational experience."

Hinton cautions, however, that this commitment has to start at the highest level. "How diverse are your trustees? Your cabinet?" she asks. "If this is not valued at the highest level, why would you expect managers at the mid-level to care about it? As the institution takes steps to determine how best to live a commitment to diversity at each level of the organization, that commitment has to be modeled at the top."

Most of all, Hinton urges that institutional leaders ask themselves: "Do we value diversity? Are we willing to invest in it?"