Why Measuring Diversity Matters

illustration of an article

This is one of two companion articles that form a dual installment in our “Changing How We Understand the Market” series. The companion article to this one is “How the Simpson’s Index Can Offer Universities a Different Look at Diversity” by Jon Boeckenstedt.

In this series, we analyze current enrollment and demographics data, uncovering stories that challenge how institutions often understand their marketplace—or that shed new light on emerging trends. We want to encourage a deeper look at the implications of today’s marketplace data. We hope that you will share these stories across your institution and use them to start critical conversations to drive not only enrollment strategy but discussions of curricular offerings, student support, and course design. While we’ll highlight findings and stories worthy of closer attention, each article includes an easy-to-use Tableau dashboard that you and your colleagues can use to drill deep in the data yourself.

Also in this series:


by Ricardo Azziz, Regents’ Professor, Augusta University;
Former President, Georgia Regents University & Georgia Health Sciences University;
Senior Fellow, Pullias Center for Higher Education, University of Southern California

Diversity. Seems to be top of mind in a lot of conversations on university and college campuses today, not the least as it reflects much of the national conversation occurring in this election year.  The sole word leaves few in higher education administration unmoved… but not all in the same manner. For some, it represents a rallying cry to action… maybe even battle. For others, it drives them to silence, as they sense the faint odor of hypocrisy and political correctness. And for still others, it brings about torpor and apathy, as they remember they heard this one before… and nothing happened.

But no matter how we individually feel about the subject, diversity IS a critical issue affecting our nation and our campuses. Recent data from the Pew Research Center provides, once again, a reminder that the US is becoming inexorably more diverse. A few highlights:

  • Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than ever, and by 2055 the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority.
  • Women’s role in the labor force and leadership positions has grown and continues to grow dramatically. In fact, mothers were the sole or primary breadwinner in a record 40% of all households with children in 2011.
  • By 2050, world-wide the number of Muslims will nearly equal the number of Christians. In the U.S., the Muslim population will remain small, but is projected to grow rapidly.
  • The US and global populations will continue to age, with the proportion of individuals who are greater than 65 years old being higher than it has ever been.

So yes, we should meaningfully address diversity on our campuses, and we should do so in a way that produces results that are, relevant, value-added, are expected, and we can be proud of.

Experience tells us that succeeding in improving the diversity of a campus depends on many factors. Just a few to consider include:

  1. Understanding diversity: Diversity goes well beyond the color of one’s skin. It encompasses gender, sexual, political and religious orientation, culture, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities and disabilities, and much more.  Focusing on only one aspect of diversity fails to create the needed ‘culture of diversity’ on campus and among leadership.
  2. Timing the process: Contrary to many other initiatives, where waiting for the right crisis is optimum to move an initiative forward, addressing diversity on campus should start early and proactively. Acting reactively is often too little too late. Trust among all stakeholders must be established long before the inevitable crises develop.
  3. Presenting the business case: Fostering diversity is not just ‘the right thing to do ethically’ but ‘the right thing to do as a business’. In other words, leaders must present enhancing diversity as a solid business case, especially to your Board and fellow administrators.
  4. Fostering inclusivity: Maintaining and leveraging diversity critically depends on a campus’ ability to build a climate of inclusivity; i.e. diversity without inclusivity is like looking at a collection of different spools of colored thread and calling it a tapestry.
  5. Building a culture of tolerance: Building a diverse and inclusive campus also requires a culture of tolerance; not only a tolerance for diversity, but a tolerance for different points of views, for open and respectful disagreement and dialogue. And building such a culture often is harder than building a diverse and inclusive university community.
  6. Resourcing and empowering: Efforts to enhance campus diversity, inclusivity and tolerance must be accompanied by the provision of adequate and real resources, not just double-hatting individuals, and the granting of real authority with consequences, not just a title. Otherwise those responsible for implementing the vision will be unable to do so effectively. Which will serve to perpetuate the self-fulfilling notion that most efforts to enhance diversity are doomed to failure.
  7. Using data and measuring progress: Finally, it is critical that hard data and measurements be used to plan strategy and track progress. It is not possible to improve what cannot be measured.

This last factor is often overlooked or its need underestimated. But without relevant and readily obtainable and accessible data and measurables, it is literally impossible to strategize and plan, develop and implement specific tactics, establish goals and endpoints, monitor progress and identify barriers, and celebrate milestones and wins.

In the companion article How Simpson’s Index Can Help Universities Take a Different Look at Diversity, Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University has created an interactive tool that applies the Simpson’s Diversity Index to data from IPEDS and the US Census Bureau to allow comparison between regions, states, types of colleges, and even individual institutions. (Simpson’s Diversity Index calculates the probability that any two members of a system, selected randomly, will be the same. Values range from 0, representing absolutely no diversity and every member of the group is the same, to 1, indicating complete diversity and every member of the group is different.)

While the dashboard has clear drawbacks (e.g., it uses a few markers of race and ethnicity as measures of diversity, uses IPDES data, focuses solely on students, and does not assess faculty or staff), the tool clearly demonstrates the value of having data that can be manipulated across institutions and beyond.

For example, one clearly is able to see such national trends as:

  • That most student populations at institutions of higher ed are more diverse than their state populations. Those institutions that are not should take notice and ask why not.
  • That universities in less diverse states are generally also less diverse than the norm, which affects their students’ on-campus experience and likely helps ensure that discrimination and cultural intolerance persists in these states.
  • That public universities are more diverse than private non-profits, but much less diverse than private for-profits, a fact that likely reflects the access mission of public higher ed and the business model of the for-profit sector. And so on.

However, the real value of such a dashboard is the ability of leadership of an individual institution to benchmark against national trends and compare with other institutions, thus helping to guide the development of strategy and the monitoring of tactical implementation. While the dashboard offered by Jon Boeckenstedt is but an example, it does highlight the possibilities — and the absolute need to measure if we want to actually improve our campuses’ diversity, inclusivity and tolerance.