Posted on September 24, 2004

Students Value Diversity In High School And College

Laura Kujawski, PNNOnline, Sept. 22

The vast majority of this fall’s high school senior classes say they have benefited from the diversity of their school and it’s important for the college they eventually attend to emphasize a diverse student body, according to a national survey. Students feel postsecondary institutions value diversity highly, but the teenagers have mixed feelings about affirmative action and a very unclear understanding about what it means and how schools use it.

The nationwide survey of nearly 1,800 students, who were juniors when it was conducted in May, was undertaken by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA), an educational research organization that links college-bound high school students to postsecondary institutions. It was conducted by the Center for Teen Insight. It is the first known survey of high school students on attitudes about affirmative action and higher education.

Of those surveyed, three-quarters believe universities use race, ethnicity, or religious background as a factor in admissions, and 82 percent think it is unfair to do so. At the same time, nearly two-thirds think colleges should do more to promote the diversity of their student bodies, although that view varies sharply by race, with 90 percent of African Americans thinking so, but only 56 percent of whites.

“For the first time, we’ve asked high school students what they think about diversity and what it means to them,” said Don Munce, President of NRCCUA. “College-bound students clearly value diversity and want it to be a part of their college experience. But as colleges reach out to potential students, they need to understand the perspectives — and misperceptions — that many high school students have. And they need to do a better job of explaining what affirmative action and diversity really mean in higher education today.”

Among the key findings were:

– 66 percent of the students think their high school is at least somewhat diverse, although only 27 percent rated it as very diverse.

– 66 percent think the diversity of their school has been beneficial to them, with 31 percent rating the benefit very highly.

– 70 percent say a diverse environment at the college they’ll attend is important, with 23 percent saying it’s very important.

– 93 percent believe colleges value diversity, with 43 percent saying schools value it “a lot”.

– 56 percent think adults “over-emphasize the importance of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity and related issues.”

When asked about what they’d like to see in the college they attend, the students said a coeducational experience (44 percent) and racial diversity (38 percent) were very important diversity factors. Students from abroad or different regions of the US followed with 35 and 34 percent respectively. Only 22 percent rated economic diversity as very important.

By far the major reasons students have the impression that universities value diversity are materials produced by the institutions (such as brochures, web sites, and planning guides), sited by 71 percent, and hearing or reading about it in the news, selected by 55 percent. A third came to that conclusion through a campus visit, and a similar share from talking to current college students. Only 20 percent think that because of a conversation with a college admissions officer, and only 31 percent because of talks with a high school guidance counselor.

“Picturing diversity on web sites, in brochures, and through mailings is getting the message across that colleges value diversity,” Munce said. “But it appears that schools aren’t clearly explaining what their policies are and how they make decisions to achieve diversity.”

Differences Among Students

There were a number of significant differences in the way different races and ethnicities viewed diversity. For example, 67 percent of Asian Americans say race and ethnicity are important factors in defining diversity compared to 54 percent of African Americans, 45 percent of Caucasians, and only 42 percent of Latinos.

Only 29 percent of Caucasians said attending a college with a racially diverse student population was very important (rating it 8-10 on a 10-point scale), compared to 53 percent of African Americans, 48 percent of Asian Americans, and 41 percent of Latinos. Latinos were the least likely to believe colleges and universities use race, ethnicity or religious background as admissions factors (61 percent), with 65 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Caucasians, and 75 percent of African Americans believing they do.

Disconnect between Colleges and Students

“There is a disconnect between colleges and the students they are trying to recruit,” said Munce. “Students think racial preferences play a far bigger role in the admissions process than they do. And students are not hearing about other stated diversity priorities, such as achieving greater economic or gender diversity.”

A 2003 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported, based on a representative sample of colleges and universities nationwide, that 74 percent of colleges and universities include a commitment to diversity of some form in their mission statement. Sixty-six percent of these institutions acknowledged a commitment to socio-economic diversity. The NACAC study also reported that 74 percent of colleges and universities use specific recruitment practices to increase racial and ethnic diversity.

“These institutions are committed to diversity on their campuses in all its forms-racial/ethnic, geographic, socioeconomic, to name but a few,” said NACAC Executive Director Joyce Smith. “This commitment is critical to moving towards a more fully integrated and robust environment in higher education and the nation.”

Only 28 percent of the teenagers think colleges place a high priority on economic status. And this was the least selected factor when high school students were asked to define diversity and describe what is important to them.

Earlier research by NRCCUA also showed that colleges and universities are reaching out to African American, Latino, low-income, and male students far less often than to those already represented on campuses in disproportionate numbers.

Misunderstanding “Affirmative Action”

Few high school students understand what “affirmative action” really means. A plurality of students, 30 percent, believe affirmative action means the “admission of a certain number of students of specific racial, ethnic or religious background.” While no college uses a strict quota system, this definition was the top choice for each racial group. African Americans were most likely to equate affirmative action with quotas, with 38 percent saying that’s what it means. Latinos were least likely to say it means quotas, although 26 percent think it does.

Only 22 percent knew the correct definition — that affirmative action allows colleges to give “positive consideration” to factors such as race and ethnicity.

“We must do a better job of explaining what we mean — and don’t mean — by affirmative action,” Munce said. “The troubling misunderstanding many students have about what it means for them and admissions can give a terribly false impression of how colleges are making decisions.”

“It is heartening to see more universities value diversity as part of a strong student development program,” said Melvin C. Tyler, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “However, universities should take bigger steps to help all students understand how important diversity is in preparing them to be responsible and compassionate leaders.”

Other Findings

The NRCCUA study also showed:

– 65 percent of students said the focus of colleges and universities on diversity has not changed the way they are approaching the college selection process

– 78 percent said using race, ethnicity and religious background as and admissions factor affects the way non-minority students feel about minority students.

– 53 percent said using these factors lowered admissions standards.

– 54 percent rated people from different parts of the world as very important in personally defining diversity, followed by 50 percent saying race or ethnicity. Only 24 percent rate economic status as a very important factor, the lowest of seven choices.

The survey was conducted between May 12-24, 2004 by the Center for Teen Insight. A sample of more than 60,000 nationally representative high school juniors from NRCCUA’s database was recruited to participate via an e-mail. Nearly 1,800 students (925 girls and 850 boys) completed the survey online. Attitudinal differences by race are computed among 946 respondents who self-reported their race. (That sample was comprised of 625 Caucasians, 121 Latinos, 116 African Americans, and 84 Asian Americans.)