What We’re Reading: University rationales for diversity highlight the structural inequalities of higher education

Artwork by Clare Reid

Universities’ motivations for pursuing diverse student bodies are mostly designed to attract and benefit white students, and this may negatively affect academic outcomes for BIPOC students, according to a recent paper by researchers Jordan G. Starck, Stacey Sinclair, and J. Nicole Shelton from Princeton University

The study found that university messaging around diversity efforts center around “instrumental” or broad educational value—in other words, the practical benefits of diversity efforts to the wider learning community—rather than the moral imperative of racial equity in access to higher education. It subsequently found that white students prefer the instrumental approach, and admissions leaders know this, which is presumably why the instrumental approach is the one most commonly used across higher education, according to an analysis of all 188 schools ranked by U.S. News in 2017 and 2018.

Perhaps most alarming, the study concludes that the instrumental approach can be associated with racial disparities in graduation rates, “especially in the absence of a moral approach.” It implies that the educational experience of Black and other students of color is more likely to suffer when schools emphasize the instrumental rationale rather than the moral rationale.

These findings underscore the extent to which higher education is built with an ingrained focus on the needs of the American elite, a group that overwhelmingly skews white, even today. It’s not enough to have race-based quotas and representation. Inclusion in higher ed means rooting ourselves in moral values in order to create  an environment where all people have the opportunity to thrive.