Much Research on Campus Diversity Suffers From Being Only Skin Deep, New Studies Suggest

April 13, 2010

A new collection of studies suggests that the success of minority college students and students' perceptions of race relations on their campuses are strongly influenced by factors that actually have little direct connection with ethnicity or race.

Among the studies, all published in the spring issue of New Directions for Institutional Research, is an analysis of University of California student survey data that concludes that students' choice of academic major plays a greater role than their race in determining how much discrimination they perceive on campus. Moreover, having large numbers of racially and culturally sensitive students might paradoxically cause a campus's reputation for tolerance to suffer, because such students are more likely to perceive and report bigotry around them.

Another study, unusual in that it focuses on a campus where white students are outnumbered, concludes that high minority enrollments do not necessarily lead to increased perceptions of tolerance. A third study, examining the educational progress of freshmen at several institutions, concludes that first-generation college students experience some events on the campus differently than do other students. For example, they appear not to reap the same educational gains from out-of-classroom interactions with faculty members as do their peers with at least one college-educated parent, perhaps because the first-generation students may be somewhat rattled and put off by such interactions, which leave their peers feeling more intellectually engaged.

The journal issue, titled Diversity and Educational Benefits, was edited by Serge Herzog, director of institutional analysis at the University of Nevada at Reno, who said in an interview Tuesday that the new studies reinforce his view that much past research on diversity on campuses has been focused on advancing one side of the debate over affirmative action and has lacked a sound empirical basis and an appreciation of the complexities of campus race relations.

Although a wave of other recent studies not included in the new journal issue have taken a similarly nuanced approach to examining campus diversity, Mr. Herzog said much more such work needs to be done to ensure that colleges' policies are grounded in sound research.

"Clearly, defining diversity strictly around ethnicity or race fails to capture the multidimensionality of the concept," Mr. Herzog writes in an article in the journal summarizing the studies it presents. Other student attributes that also contribute to campus diversity, he writes, "play a significant role in shaping both the academic and the social experience of students," and assessments of the educational benefits of diversity "may significantly vary with the type of data used."

Major Differences

The analysis of University of California student data was conducted by Steve Chatman, a researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the university's Berkeley campus. He based his analysis on university records and a 2008 survey of more than 60,000 students at the university's eight largest undergraduate campuses conducted by the center's Student Experience in the Research University project, which he directs. That instrument, the University of California Undergraduate Experience Survey, gathers extensive information on students' backgrounds and asks questions that shed light on students' interpersonal relations and experiences with diversity.

Mr. Chatman says in an article summarizing his findings that his analysis sought to encourage researchers to move "away from knee-jerk selective assumptions about diversity and campus climate" focused on comparisons of responses of different racial and ethnic groups, and to instead explore whether the data at hand offer insights into student similarities and differences based on other characteristics, such as academic interest or political orientation.

He conducted his analysis by looking at student survey responses and trying to find new ways to categorize students based on whether they gave similar answers. Where students with one characteristic consistently offered survey responses similar to those of students with a different characteristic—in the case of, for example, mathematics majors offering responses much like those of computer-science majors—he lumped the two groups together.

Mr. Chatman's approach enabled him to develop several innovative new taxonomies of the student population. When it came to family income, for example, he found students split into two distinct groups marked by similarities in their survey responses, with $65,000 being the cutoff point. In terms of political views, students also fell into two distinct camps in terms of their responses—those identified as conservative, and everyone else. (For the most part, Mr. Chatman's article avoids discussing what the survey responses actually are, arguing they generally are beside the point when it comes to this analysis.)

When it came to race and ethnicity, students fell into four distinct groups in terms of their survey responses. Black students stood alone and were the most distinct, in terms of the answers they gave. Hispanic and Filipino students gave similar answers, forming a second cluster. A third cluster consisted of Asian-American populations with high proportions of recent immigrants—Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans. The fourth cluster included white, Indian, Pakistani, Japanese, and other students, including those who declined to state their ethnicity.

When Mr. Chatman examined students' similarities and differences based on academic discipline, he writes, he found "the group of area- and ethnic-studies students responded in a uniquely identifiable way" to survey questions. A second cluster of students offering roughly similar answers included students in the sciences, mathematics, engineering, computer science, business, and agriculture. A third cluster consisted of students in the humanities, social sciences, public administration, communications, and journalism.

Although students' academic disciplines have seldom been considered in past research on campus climate, Mr. Chatman found that academic orientation was even more strongly correlated than race or ethnicity with students' views on such matters. When asked, for example, how well respect for personal beliefs was promoted on their campuses, upper-division area- and ethnic-studies students painted a much worse picture than students in the humanities and social sciences, and the most positive assessments were offered by students in the cluster that included science, engineering, mathematics, and business. Within each academic cluster, students' assessments of campus climate also varied substantially by institution.

Given such a finding, Mr. Chatman asked: "Are area- and ethnic-studies majors the most sensitive and accurately calibrated indicators, or are they seeing through a warped lens that distorts observation?" Would efforts to promote diversity by bolstering area- and ethnic-studies offerings actually have the effect of lowering the ratings students gave the climate on that campus? The researcher even went so far as to question whether the impact of campus climate on student perceptions can be objectively measured at all.

More Reports of Insensitivity

The study of a racially mixed campus discussed in the issue was conducted by Berkeley Miller, director of academic institutional research at San Francisco State University, and Sutee Sujitparapitaya, associate vice president of institutional research at San Jose State University.

They examined an unnamed public West Coast university where, from 1994 to 2006, white students' share of enrollment declined from 40.5 percent to 27.8 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders' share rose from 28 percent to 32.3 percent, and Hispanics' share rose from 12.1 percent to 15 percent, while black and American Indian enrollments remained fairly steady. The data they used were gathered by the campus in 1994, 1999, and 2006 by administering the California State University system's Student Needs and Priorities Survey.

In comparing the survey's results over time, the two researchers found that the share of all students on the campus who reported occasionally or frequently witnessing one or more forms of insensitive behavior rose as the institution became more diverse, with the increase being driven partly by increases in both the number of minority students responding to the survey and in the share of minority students reporting such behavior. Their findings, they said, clearly show "that highly diverse, racially mixed campuses are not necessarily harmonious environments; microaggression and other types of insensitive behavior can still occur at a comparatively high level."

The study examining the progress of college freshmen was conducted by Paul D. Umbach, an associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University; Ernest T. Pascarella, a professor of higher education at the University of Iowa; four University of Iowa doctoral students: Kathleen M. Goodman, Megan P. Johnson, and Ryan D. Padgett, and Kem Saichaie. They based their analysis on data from 19 colleges participating in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, focusing on 2,700 first-year students surveyed in both the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007.

In looking at a student characteristic known as "need for cognition"—essentially, enjoyment of and willingness to engage in thoughtful activities—the researchers found that first-generation students stood out from others in terms of how their progress over the year was influenced by interactions with faculty members outside the classroom. Whereas students with at least one college-educated parent appeared—regardless of racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic background—to benefit from such interactions, those first-generation students who experienced such interactions appeared to score lower than other first-generation students on need-for-cognition measures.

"Given the noncollege background of first-generation families," the researchers write, "it is possible that the college experience of interacting with faculty may actually be an unnerving activity to those students," perhaps causing them to decline one-on-one interactions with faculty members down the road.

Also contained in the journal issue are two studies previously covered by The Chronicle. One by Nicholas A. Bowman, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame, concludes that students' self-reported gains in their learning do not accurately measure their actual cognitive growth. The other, by Mr. Herzog, concluded that exposure to racial and ethnic diversity does not appear to aid the cognitive growth of college freshmen.