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Equity, Inclusion, And Diversity In Higher Education

Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in Higher Education

In late summer and early fall, universities across the U.S. welcome students back to campus.  But today’s colleges and universities differ from those of years past.  According to government data, in 1976, only 15.7 percent of college students were students of color.  By 2015, that number had swelled to 42.4 percent – nearly three times the prior number.  In 1975, more men attended college than women.  Today, women of all races outnumber men on campus.  In the 1970s, few students were out on campus.  But today’s LGBTQ students stand strong in their pride.  In spite of systemic barriers, people with some form of disability are increasingly attending and graduating from college.  Because today’s campuses have a wider range of students, university leaders must understand and commit to equity, inclusion, and diversity in higher education.

To be sure, colleges have made some attempts to adjust to their new reality.  In the past five years, universities have hired a record number of EDI professionals.  However, there is still work to be done.   The number of hate crimes and racist incidents on American college campuses increased rapidly after the 2016 election.  Also, hate groups have decided to spread their messages at college campuses.  As tensions rise on campus, colleges and universities that want all students to excel must understand EDI principles.

As tensions rise on campus, colleges and universities that want all students to excel must understand EDI principles. Click To Tweet

Equity in Higher Education

As mentioned in the blog and in the Equity Toolkit e-course, equity and equality are not the same.  While equality means treating everyone the same, equity means “making appropriate accommodations for people from underserved or historically marginalized groups to allow them full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the majority.”  Unlike equality, equity focuses on removing the structural barriers that prevent non-dominant groups from excelling.

To promote equity, educational leaders should address the barriers that prevent students from succeeding.  For instance, as previously mentioned, today’s colleges enroll more students of color than ever.  But these students are not being admitted to the same schools as their white peers.  According to the New York Times, African American and Latinx students are more underrepresented at elite colleges today than they were 40 years ago.  So, students of color are being pushed into less prestigious, more costly schools.  As a result, they graduate with more debt and fewer job prospects. This result is not an accident; current college admissions practices favor those with means to pay for tutoring and testing.  To create equity, higher education leaders should review their admissions policies to ensure that they are not reinforcing economic inequalities.

Issues of equity do not end at the admissions office, however.  While more students of color are enrolling at the nation’s colleges, they are not graduating at the same rates as their white peers.  Some take longer to graduate; others do not graduate at all.  Most students of color pause their studies for financial reasons.  The racial wealth gap is the result of both structural and historical racism.  Colleges and universities should review their financial aid policies to ensure that all enrolled students can complete their degrees.

Diversity in Higher Education

Diverse colleges provide several benefits for students and society.  Research shows that when a classroom is diverse, students excel.  According to The Century Foundation, students in diverse classrooms had “improved intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship and cultural engagement.”  Other studies have found that students in diverse environments have increased cognitive abilities.  Clearly, diversity helps students learn.

The benefits of diversity are not just academic.  Students educated in diverse environments are forced to interact with people outside of their normal comfort zone.  These interactions improve students’ communication abilities.  Along the same lines, working with others forces students to challenge their stereotypes.  These students will be more tolerant of others after graduation.

Diversity doesn’t just make students better people.  It makes them better employees.  In today’s global economy, businesses want employees that can easily communicate with a variety of clients and customers.  Colleges that embrace diversity will give their graduates an edge in the job market.

Inclusion in Higher Education

As previously mentioned on this blog, having diverse bodies in place is not enough.  Diversity in higher education is a worthy goal, but schools must make all students feel welcome on campus.  Without inclusion, diversity efforts will fail.  Experts agree that while enrolling diverse students is the start of the process, the benefits of diversity are not unlocked until students feel safe enough to share their experiences and learn from others.  So, inclusion is a goal every college should work toward every year.

Luckily, there is no shortage of ways for universities to make students feel at home.  Some universities have strong student-led organizations, such as a Black Student Union, that provide students with places to interact.  Additionally, most colleges have women’s centers, an office of LGBT affairs, or a director of Muslim or Jewish life to provide students with guidance, support, and information tailored to their needs.

Even with a solid inclusion plan, university leaders must be prepared to act swiftly when issues arise.  In the age of 24-hour news cycles and social media, waiting to respond to student concerns is a recipe for disaster.  The students feel excluded because they don’t feel heard, which only makes matters worse.  Listening and communicating with empathy and humility are essential for communicating with students at all times, but is especially important in times of crisis.


EDI practices are essential for all organizations, but colleges and universities that fail their diverse students prevent these students from accessing the full benefits of higher education. To learn more about equity, inclusion, and diversity in higher education and elsewhere, please enroll in the Equity Toolkit e-courses.  The Equity Toolkit is an interactive, four-course online series containing essential, research-based concepts on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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