Diversity adds Value in Selective Universities

James M. Jones

James M. Jones,
Director, Center for the Study of Diversity

James M. Jones
Director, Center for the Study of Diversity

A recent report from the Georgetown University’s Center for Education and Workforce makes the provocative argument that higher education reproduces white privilege across generations of U.S. college students.  How can higher education in the age of diversity be the purveyor of white privilege?  According to the report, here is how.

Although Black and Hispanic students are enrolling in college at ever-increasing rates—from 1995 to 2009, freshman enrollments increased for African-American students by 73 percent, for Hispanic students by 107 percent, and for white students by 15 percent—the vast majority of white freshmen (82%) are going to the 468 most selective four-year colleges and universities while African American (68%) and Hispanic (72%) freshmen are primarily attending under- resourced open-access two- and four-year colleges.

The significance of this disparity is illustrated by the greater financial resources of selective colleges and universities—they spend five times as much on instruction as open access colleges—and their students have higher rates of graduate school enrollment and advanced degree attainment, as well as higher future earnings, even among equally qualified students.

The report argues that these separate pathways to higher education create and perpetuate unequal educational and economic outcomes, leading to intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.

Although the statistics clearly identify the group-based advantage whites enjoy, this is not new.  White privilege is a cumulative consequence of centuries of discrimination and racism.  What is new is that black and brown students increasingly benefit from the advantages that whites have long enjoyed—by attending selective colleges and universities. Bowen and Bok documented these advantages over a decade ago in The Shape of the River (1998).  In their comprehensive study of a database of 93,660 fulltime students who entered 34 selective colleges and universities in the fall of 1951, 1976 and 1989, they document that “…admission to these kinds of schools pays off handsomely for individuals of all races, from all backgrounds…[in addition] benefits accrue to society at large through leadership and civic participation of the graduates and through the broad contributions that the schools themselves make to the goals of a democratic society” (p. 276).  Given the generalized positive consequences of attending selective colleges and universities, I focus on their role in potentially reducing race- and ethnicity-based social and economic inequality.

Most colleges and universities value diversity as integral to their institutional mission.  But how does that value translate to institutional practices and outcomes?  To measure an institution’s racial and ethnic diversity, the U.S. News and World Report college rankings computes an ethnic diversity index (EDI) which varies between 0 (none at all) to 1.00 (maximum possible diversity).  A higher diversity index indicates a more diverse student population. For example, considering diversity to include Whites, Blacks, Asians and Hispanics only, Table 1 shows the EDI for the 2012 UD undergraduate student population, and three hypothetical scenarios reflecting changes in the undergraduate population.  The EDI takes into account representation of all relevant groups and their relative proportion of the designated population.

Table 1:  EDI Calculations for UD actual and three hypothetical scenarios.


UD   Actual 2012

Scenario #1 Scenario #2 Scenario #3



































The average EDI rating of the top 20 best schools in the U.S. News rankings is .59; while the average for the lowest 20 ranked schools is .39. The average EDI of UD peer institutions is .49. The University of Delaware (UD) EDI rating in 2012 was .36, and its Best College rank was 75.  The 2013 UD entering freshman class is 24% ethnic and racial minorities, the highest it has ever been.  The EDI for the 2013 freshman class is .48.  If we assume that the 2013 graduates equal the number in the freshman class, and has the same .36 EDI as UD as a whole, then replacing them with the new freshman class raises the overall UD EDI to .39.  To reach an EDI of .48 would take four consecutive years of sustained and focused recruitment and retention of racial and ethnic minority students with at minimum, the same degree of success as 2013.  Reshaping the landscape of UD students should be framed not in a zero sum competition for admission, but as an increased competition to bring students who offer something unique, different, and valuable to the learning environment.  Hard choices, sustained commitment, and effective practices are essential to changing the profile of the UD student body in an increasingly diverse U.S. population.

Critics of diversity actions portray diversity and excellence as inherently conflicted.  As we saw, the top 20 ranked schools have the highest average EDI of any cluster of national universities.  Moreover, the correlation between EDI and best College Rank for the 200 schools that have both ratings is a highly statistically significant .235.  So by all accounts a school does not need to sacrifice prestige for diversity. However, there are some important caveats.

One group of considerations include selectivity of admissions, retention and graduation rates.  Table 1 shows the correlations of these factors with best college rankings and EDI.  The best college ranking is positively associated with lower acceptance rate (higher selectivity), higher retention of freshmen, and a better 6-year graduation rate.  Conversely, the EDI is related to higher acceptance rate (lower selectivity) selectivity, lower freshman retention, and graduation rates.

Table 2: Correlations of College prestige and diversity with student selectivity, freshmen retention and graduation rates.

College   rating

Fall 2011   acceptance rate

Average   freshman retention rate

6-year   graduation rate

Best College Rank




Ethnic Diversity Index




So, what does this mean?  I draw three insights from these analyses.  First, selective colleges and universities can play a significant role in reducing social and economic inequality when they commit to aggressively pursuing more diversity among their students and are dedicated to enhancing their success.  Second, diversity can be a plus within the proviso that retention and graduation rates remain high and steadily improve.  UD’s 6-year graduation rate is 78%, compared to Penn State’s 87% and Yale’s 98%. And third, a university’s diversity reputation can be a plus factor in its overall ranking as a national university.  According to management professors Quinetta Roberson of Villanova University, and Hyeon Jeong Park of Georgia State University, diversity reputation refers to stakeholders’ perceptions about an organization’s ability to create value through its diversity action.  The business community acknowledges that positive link, and colleges profess it but much remains to be done to determine which diversity actions contribute value and how.

Professors Roberson and Park examined Fortune 500 companies and found that the more diverse their workforce, the greater their book-to-market value—an indication of investor confidence in the company’s future.  To transpose this finding to the university setting, we may ask what value is added to a university when its diversity reputation is enhanced?  Do alumni give more or less?  Does it make it easier to recruit qualified diverse students? Does it make it less attractive to some majority white students, but more attractive to others?  Does it promote a more sensitive and broadened approach to faculty scholarship and teaching and the general education  curriculum?

The value proposition—that student and faculty diversity add value to a university—is not limited to a given university, or a given group of students.  Research strongly supports the value of diversity in higher education through promoting better citizenship, improved intergroup understanding, expanded cognitive and perspective diversity, and enhanced institutional relevance and visions of the future.  The idea that selective colleges and universities perpetuate white privilege is balanced by the fact that anyone who attends has better outcomes in school and beyond.  Moreover, according to a recent Brooking institute report, obtaining a college degree is the single, most effective way to increase economic and social mobility.  But for the landscape to change in the coming years of increasing diversity in the United States, the positive outcomes that come from attending selective colleges and universities need to be more widely available to students whose backgrounds diverge from traditional majorities.

The blog for the Center for the Study of Diversity at the University of Delaware is guided  by the premise that promoting better understanding of diversity is a compelling interest and a complex dynamic in higher education and in U.S. society.  The posts discuss and analyze a wide variety of diversity topics from research and scholarly perspectives.  Although opinions will be expressed, it is not meant primarily an opinion site, but a research-based exploration of diversity.  We also offer insights into the role of universities as “anchor institutions” in their local and regional communities—where Community includes the university campus, the cities and towns in which they are located, and the collective individuals and groups with whom they interact, support, and depend.  We invite guest bloggers from time to time to provide insight and analysis on a variety of topics that are timely and reflect ongoing issues in higher education.  We post regularly on Fridays on a three to four week schedule. We welcome feedback and commentary, though we will not necessarily respond publically.