Diversity at a college is as important as the majors and extracurriculars it may offer. For students of color, LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, or other underrepresented groups, a diverse campus climate can make the difference in a successful college experience.
Formerly the associate director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis, Marie Bigham worked as a college counselor in private schools before founding ACCEPT: Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today.
Based in New Orleans, the group works to help students, particularly those from marginalized communities, navigate the college admissions process and evaluate potential colleges for diversity.
Bigham says ACCEPT has more than 5,000 employees working on college admissions as activism for anti-racism, equity, and justice. They work with admissions programs, testing, and anyone engaged in the process to help remove barriers, she says.
“There are things I do certainly that I look for when visiting a college,” Bigham says. Asking blunt questions is only part of it, she says. Parents and students should walk around a campus and look for signs of the true atmosphere of the school.
“If you see people who look like you, what roles are they in? Are they teaching? Are they students? Are they service staff?” Bigham says. “Are they engaged like you see the majority students engaged?”
Online resources such as U.S. News & World Report provide free “diversity index” information, though these tools are not always the best indication of true diversity or inclusion. U.S. News’ index calculates the proportion of minority students, leaving out international students, and the overall mix of groups at national universities, liberal arts colleges, and regional universities and colleges.
The numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Technically the lowest ranking among national universities was Howard University, a historically Black university, because of the lack of racial diversity.
The student newspaper can provide a better window into the school’s atmosphere, a far more accurate snapshot than glossy marketing brochures, Bigham says.
Those printed brochures and websites are often “overly staged” to represent diversity that may not necessarily exist, according to Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools.
Students and parents should seek out statistics and data to demonstrate broad representation of diversity on campus, and if all the college can offer are statistics, they may not be doing enough to support and include all students on campus, she says.
“Too often at predominantly White institutions, we say ‘inclusion,’ but we instead live something closer to assimilation,” Harward says.
In-person communication makes the biggest difference when evaluating the atmosphere of a school, Bigham says. “There is nothing more telling than talking with students of color,” she says. “I’m an extrovert and I’m comfortable with walking up to a group of students and just starting to talk, which might be terrifying for others. But ask them: ‘What is it like here?’ That student voice, nothing can replace it.”
Patti Whalen manages college counseling for the Bryn Mawr School for girls in Baltimore. She says it’s important for the students to know themselves well and know what they’re looking for in terms of diversity.
“She might be a girl who is very comfortable with who she is, she wants to be herself, and doesn’t want to have to fight the fight or engage in the conversation,” Whalen says. “For others, the discussion is paramount: She wants to be part of the fight and the movement forward, and so she wants to put herself somewhere where there is a lot of dialogue on campus.”
Bigham agreed. “Students should be allowed to be themselves,” she says. “Some say, ‘I don’t want to be the only one like me in a classroom. I don’t want to have to be the voice of all Native Americans’… but others say, ‘I want to be the first. I want to be that person.”
It’s important for colleges to recognize a student’s individual preference, Harward says. “Students of color shouldn’t be viewed as a monolith with a single set of interests and needs any more than any other group,” she says. “Each student, no matter their race or ethnicity, brings a unique story and experience to college, and we should challenge any assumptions that lump all students in a perceived group together without acknowledging distinct needs and interests.”
Harward says highly selective colleges are focusing new efforts on recruitment of students from rural areas, low-income students, and first generation college students. “Those students also need to see themselves represented and supported on campus to feel comfortable or safe enrolling,” she says.
Sometimes the signs are clear. Once Bigham was on tour at a large college in Texas, and the student she was escorting asked, “What’s it like to be a gay student on this campus?”
The response was, “We pray for them here.”
Another parent then asked him, “Are you gay?” The student’s response was, “Why does it matter? I care.”
One of Whalen’s students is transgender and received a summer internship at a college. The school said all the right things about gender policies, Whalen says, but when she arrived it was different. The dorms were separated by gender and the school did not make it easy for the student to figure out where she was allowed to be.
“Their literature says they talk about it, but they don’t walk it,” Whalen says. “They all say the right things, but it takes actually doing some investigating: What are the dorms like? Are there gender-nonspecific bathrooms?”
Schools that make diversity a priority will have visible signs of support, such as Safe Zone information, and support staff and advisors to help LGBTQ students on campus. Those who have been trained place stickers on their doors designating them as Safe Zones so students know their office is a safe space for them to speak and to be themselves.
The confidentiality of services is also important, especially for students with disabilities. “Kids don’t want to be singled out,” Whalen says. “If I use disability services, am I just another student, or what hoops do I have to jump through?”
Calling the disability services offices directly or visiting when on campus makes a big difference, she says, in evaluating the campus culture surrounding disability.
Mental healthcare support services are also important to consider, and Bigham says the need seems to have taken many by surprise. Some colleges are expanding their services, even offering 24-hour counseling.
“So many students are finding they need services, and [colleges] are scrambling to keep up with the mental health needs,” Bigham says. “This generation of college students is dealing with more anxiety and depression than we’ve ever seen before. … This is a generation that has grown up dealing with active shooter drills since kindergarten. That level of anxiety is real, and I see it in my schools.”
Harward says educators need to make an effort to truly appreciate the full range of experiences that students bring with them.
“Drop the dated assumptions on what underrepresented or marginalized students need and dig in to really assess the extent to which needs are being met,” Harward says. “If we pat ourselves on the back and stop the work when we reach arbitrary metrics or benchmarks, we’re missing the human aspect and retention will suffer for all students as a result.”
Meanwhile, it is critical for students to carefully consider what they want out of their college experience, Whalen says.
“Knowing yourself beforehand and being able to get beyond what the college is publishing about itself,” Whalen says, “is something I believe in very much. But it starts with the student knowing who she is first, what she wants out of life, and finding the college that believes in those same values. If that fit happens, then the student will thrive.”
Elizabeth Donald is a contributing writer for DiversityIS. This article ran in the fall 2019 issue.