Gauge a School's Commitment to Diversity Before Enrolling

Delece Smith-Barrow

When the Supreme Court makes its imminent decision on Fisher v. University of Texas--Austin, admissions criteria for every college in the United States may be affected.

Abigail Fisher, a white woman, sued the school after she was denied admission. She argues UT--Austin favors admitting students of racial minority groups and that her academic record warranted her an acceptance letter. She has since graduated from Louisiana State University, according to several news outlets.

Whether the court rules in favor of or against affirmative action in college admissions, schools have a number of options for ensuring diversity on their campuses, which education leaders say is vital to the college experience. Students also have a variety of ways to find out if their potential college will grant them such an experience.

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"To produce a well-educated graduate today, students need the experience of learning with a diverse population that reflects the society they're going to be living and working in," says William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at think tank The Century Foundation, argues for class-based affirmative action, which in turn can lead to racial diversity within a student body. Schools looking for guidance on how to do that can look at several states - such as Nebraska and Florida - that have already banned race-based admissions practices in higher education.

"Universities and states didn't simply give up on diversity, they instead found new ways to achieve it," he says. In his 2012 report, "A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities that Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences," he highlights how several state schools moved forward after affirmative action was struck down.

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After the 1996 ban of affirmative action in California, the University of California system discontinued legacy preferences and enacted additional financial aid plans for low-income students. University of Washington, following a statewide ban on race-based admissions criteria in 1998, increased private funding for scholarships targeted at minorities.

In 2008, Nebraska residents voted to ban the use of race or ethnicity in admissions at public universities. That same year, University of Nebraska--Kearney expanded its outreach with high schools to give first-generation students academic support and scholarships to the school.

To figure out whether a school is committed to diversity, prospective students should reach out to people who were once in their position, says Sally Dickson, associate vice provost of student affairs at Stanford University.

"I think the best way to gauge is by talking to students who are currently here," she says. Prospective students should also research how involved minority alumni are to understand a school's diversity measures, Dickson says.

On-campus housing can also show how a school fosters interaction between students of different backgrounds.

"We have here at Stanford what we call ethnic-theme dorms," says Dickson. The dorms, which cater to African-Americans, Asians and other minorities, house 50 percent of individuals from a particular ethnic group.

University of Maryland--Baltimore County has a similar setup.

"A number of campuses do what we do in terms of having living-learning floors where people in the residence hall bring the members of the floor together to work on projects and to get to know each other," says school President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who is also the chair of President Barack Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

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During a campus visit, Hrabowski encourages minority students to ask to meet people with a background similar to their own in the major they may also pursue. Prospective students should also ask seniors if they would still choose that school if they could go back in time and select a different university.

Reading up on a school's economic makeup can also be revealing, says Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation.

"Prospective students can do that by looking at the percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, which is public information," he says, referring to the federal grant program open to undergraduate students.

"There are a lot of universities that are nicely diverse by race but almost everyone is wealthy," says Kahlenberg. "To my mind, that's not a full, complete sense of diversity."

Kahlenberg, who once taught law at George Washington University, says the benefits of diversity efforts have a broad reach.

"When students come with different sets of life experience, that can help enrich the discussion and the learning in the classroom in a way that benefits everyone," he says.

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