A diverse and inclusive atmosphere is a prerequisite for organizational excellence in higher education.
As of fall 2016, an estimated 20.5 million students were expected to attend American colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). With more students and more complexities and visibility, the national dialogue on diversity and inclusion has intensified greatly. Therefore, the goal of this writing is to highlight three main reasons why I believe it is important for higher education to create diverse and inclusive atmospheres to foster student success.
To begin, the realities of shifting racial/ethnic demographics are evident on college campuses and across the nation. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than they were in the past. It is projected that by 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic minority. With Hispanic/Latino populations increasing rapidly, not only will the political, economic and social elements of the U.S. be impacted, but higher education will be affected drastically.
On campuses, the NCES highlights the growing racial and ethnic diversity of college students as well. Its data found that the percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native has been increasing, while the white student population has steadily declined between 1976 and 2013.
The growing diversity of college campuses requires a paradigm shift among campus leaders who are not usually accustomed to increasingly levels of ethnic and racial diversity. Colleges must enact a proactive and coordinated approach to create a diverse and inclusive learning community that fosters the academic and social success of all students, especially students of color. Unfortunately, while more students are attending and graduating college, a study completed by The Education Trust in 2015 demonstrated that there is still a large college completion gap between the percentage of minority and white college students.
This is why the creation of an inclusive learning community is critical to the future of higher education. If colleges are currently failing to graduate students of color, as demographics continue to change, the number of students who will be adversely impacted with student loans and no degree will increase. Higher education must create inclusive environments that adapt to and support the changing demographics of the next generation.
Rising Accountability and Activism
Next, the resurgence of activism within higher education has demanded greater visibility, expectations and accountability of campus administrators surrounding issues of diversity and inclusion. Student-led protests have swept the nation over the past two years, and the stakes are higher than they have ever been for administrators to act.
Do you remember what happened at Mizzou in 2015? Student-led protests catapulted the university into the national spotlight for its damaged campus community. A swastika drawn in feces on the whiteboard of a residential hall culminated the rising racial tension that had been brewing for months. To make matters worse, a student initiated a hunger strike, later joined by the university’s football team and coaching staff, demanding the president’s resignation. Days later, the president resigned.
Unfortunately, the costs of this failure did not end there. According to a letter by the interim chancellor before the fall 2016 semester, enrollment declines for the 2016 fall freshmen cohort were projected to create a budget deficit of $32 million for the next academic year. Imagine that: Mizzou lost $32 million for failing to foster an inclusive and diverse community on its campus. That is a pricey consequence.
Without a doubt, students are more and more holding campus leaders publicly accountable for taking action to create more inclusive campus communities. Protests and student activism are examples of the changing expectations of the public and higher education related to diversity. Higher education campus leaders must act diligently to foster inclusive atmospheres that exceed stakeholder expectations, improve positive outcomes like retention and student satisfaction, and intentionally allow students to benefit from the rich and diverse learning environment. Otherwise, universities could suffer millions of lost money and mountains of negative press about their failure.
The Economic Benefits
Lastly, the economic benefits of higher education—coupled with the changing demographics and higher levels of accountability—are critical to providing diverse and inclusive atmospheres in higher education. In a report titled “The Economic Case for Higher Education,” the U.S. Department of Treasury and Department of Education concluded that college degree earners are less likely to be unemployed, and education significantly increases the ability of children to move up the economic ladder. As a country, investing in higher education would expand job opportunities, improve the nation’s ability to compete globally and enhance income mobility, positively impacting a growing economy. These findings illustrate just how important higher education is to the nation’s greater good.
The more students who graduate from college, the more benefits are experienced by the national economy. In addition, graduating more students of color would positively benefit the entire nation as well. The better prepared students are to work with and lead an increasingly diverse workforce, the better our organizations will perform. These outcomes are created by an inclusive learning community, which requires strategy, evaluation and intentionality to achieve.
Shifting demographics, rising accountability and activism, and the educational benefits of college—as well as the rapidly changing political and social landscape in the United States—have made the creation of a diverse and inclusive atmosphere a prerequisite for organizational excellence in higher education. This is no longer a moral responsibility—it’s a requirement for higher education institutions to thrive.
I challenge you to investigate your alma mater’s diversity efforts to ensure they are doing their part to leverage the economic and social benefits of producing educated leaders with the increasing diversity of future generations arriving on campus. What programs do they have? What initiatives are they creating? What is their graduation rate for all students, especially minority students? Your voice matters. iBi
Norris Chase is executive director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Bradley University.