A Dream Undone? Reflections on Race, Class, College Access, and Why Diversity Matters

Side view of student wearing a graduation cap

Diversity in education matters, and it plays an important role in Pearson’s mission of helping people make more of their lives through learning. Our differences give us unique perspectives that can enrich our learning, work, and lives. This blog post is part of our Diversity Matters series exploring different perspectives on why diversity matters in education. For more commentary and resources on the importance of diversity, visit our Diversity and Access website.

America is growing more diverse. Communities of color make up the majority in 49 of the nation’s 366 metropolitan regions, and by 2050, will be the majority across the U.S. Despite this demographic shift, recent research has demonstrated that white students from affluent families remain overrepresented on selective American college campuses. This trend certainly raises social justice concerns and it also undercuts the ability for institutions to prepare students for the realities of a diverse, global economy. The social and economic benefits of higher education are substantial, so equitable access to higher education— including at selective colleges and universities—has to be a priority if we want to provide all citizens with meaningful educational opportunities.

Ironically, as these trends have been accelerating, legal attacks on race-conscious admissions policies threaten to limit the ways universities can support student body diversity. This puts colleges and universities on uncertain terrain, driving them to seek out diversity strategies that align to the needs and contexts of their campuses while monitoring a shifting demographic, legal, and political landscape. What diversity strategies have these schools been using? Which have shown promise, and which have proven less useful? How can the research and policy-making communities help?

On July 21, we released a new report, Race, Class, and College Access: Achieving Diversity in a Shifting Legal Landscape, that aims to address these questions. We administered a first-of-its-kind survey to admissions and enrollment management leaders across the country, seeking information about practices and strategies that advance higher education access and diversity. What we found surprised us:

 Race-conscious admissions policies are used at institutions across the selectivity spectrum. It is widely believed that affirmative action happens only at the country’s most selective institutions. Our data suggest otherwise. For example, more than 20% of the public institutions that accept at least 80% of their applicants use race-conscious admissions.

The most widely used diversity strategies tend to receive the least attention. Although we hear a lot about the promise of percentage plans, eliminating legacy admissions, and implementing test-optional admissions, these are the three least widely used diversity strategies in our data. By contrast, outreach and recruitment initiatives targeted at low-income and minority students are widely used and seem quite effective, despite limited attention from researchers and the press.

 Race-conscious and race-neutral diversity approaches can and do coexist. When it comes to the types of strategies used to support racial diversity, it’s not an “either-or” but a “both-and” proposition. In our data, the institutions that consider race in the admissions process are also more likely to use broader diversity strategies like targeted recruitment of low-income students.

Of course, our report does not represent the final word on promising diversity strategies. To underscore that point, we hosted a convening the same day as the report release and invited university leaders, higher education scholars, and legal experts to speak on their research and experience (video of the event is available here). A couple of key points are worth highlighting:

 Leadership matters. A panel of higher education leaders – including three former university presidents – reminded us that a commitment to access and diversity must start at the top. From the mission statement to coordination across campus departments, a university president sets the tone. Allocating resources to support campus racial and ethnic diversity is much easier when a commitment to diversity is understood throughout an institution.

 Access without completion is a promise unfulfilled. It isn’t easy for universities to reconcile (in the words of panelist Frank Tuitt) “who they think they are, who they really are, and who they want to be.” The day’s final panel included higher education researchers and practitioners focused on connecting access to student success, and they emphasized the importance of fully interweaving outreach, recruitment, admissions, and student support services to ensure college opportunity translates to a college degree.

While the convening event has ended, the conversation must continue. Whatever the fate of race-conscious admissions, the imperative of equal educational opportunity remains. Given demographic trends and the heavy demands of a 21st-century global economy, the stakes cannot get much higher. We invite you to join the conversation and share your perspectives on race, class, college access, and why diversity matters in America.


 About the Authors
Matt GaertnerMatt Gaertner, Ph.D. | Senior Research Scientist

Matthew Gaertner’s methodological interests include multilevel models, categorical data analysis, and Item Response Theory. Substantively, his research focuses on the effects of educational policies and reforms on disadvantaged students’ access, persistence, and achievement. Dr. Gaertner’s work has been published in Harvard Law Review, Harvard Educational Review, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Research in Higher Education, and Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice. His research on affirmative action has been recognized by numerous professional organizations. He was awarded a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and an Association for Institutional Research Dissertation Grant. Dr. Gaertner also received the 2013 and 2011 Charles F. Elton Best Paper Awards from the Association for Institutional Research, and was named the 2011 Outstanding Doctoral Graduate at the University of Colorado. He earned a Ph.D. in Research and Evaluation Methodology from the University of Colorado Boulder. Connect with him on Twitter .

Lorelle Espinosa

Lorelle Espinosa

Lorelle L. Espinosa is the assistant vice president for the Center for Policy Research and Strategy at the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., where she manages the center’s research agenda. She has served the higher education profession for nearly 20 years beginning in student affairs and undergraduate admissions at the University of California, Davis, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At MIT, Espinosa held the positions of associate director of admissions and director of undergraduate recruitment with an emphasis on enrolling women and underrepresented minority students. Prior to ACE, she was the director for policy and strategic initiatives at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and a senior analyst with Abt Associates. Espinosa holds a Ph.D. in higher education and organizational change from the University of California, Los Angeles.