Liberal Education

Broadening Our Definition of Diversity

For years, American higher education institutions have been working hard to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of our campuses. This work is driven in part by arguments for social justice and the felt need for equal and expanded access to higher education. Our society is diverse, and our campuses should reflect that. We also seek diverse student bodies, because we know from numerous research studies that engaging with others from a variety of different backgrounds improves the learning environment. Our learning is impoverished when we are in a homogeneous group of like-minded individuals who share the same kinds of experiences, beliefs, and aspirations. As the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) so often points out, diversity should be talked about as “inclusive excellence,” for only when a campus is truly inclusive can it make a claim to excellence.

And we have made significant progress in improving the racial and ethnic diversity in our institutions. Over the past forty years, our freshman classes have changed from over 90 percent white to about 73 percent white. According to the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey (2011), African Americans now comprise 11.5 percent of our freshman classes, and 12.4 percent of first-year students are Latino, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, or Chicano. As figure 1 shows (see page 8), this is remarkably close to national census data from 2010, which report that 72.4 percent of Americans are white and 12.6 percent are black. There is, however, still a considerable disparity between the prevalence of Hispanics and Latinos on our campuses and in the population as a whole: 16.3 percent of the national population identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Mexican in terms of national origin.1

Figure 1. Racial composition

While our progress to date in diversifying our student populations is laudable, we can and should do more to improve inclusiveness on our campuses as a whole. Nationally in 2009, only 7 percent of faculty were black and 4 percent were Hispanic, while only 19 percent of all executive, managerial, and administrative staff were nonwhite (Snyder and Dillow 2011). Race continues to be a source of division, misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination on our campuses and in our country. Educational institutions have an obligation to address these inequalities in their admissions policies, their student life programming, their hiring, and their curricula. But there are other dimensions of diversity that have long been underemphasized and that also deserve serious attention.

Other dimensions of diversity

Our record of providing equal access to all socioeconomic classes is discouraging, as figure 2 illustrates. According to the most recent economic data available, in 2008, 40.4 percent of American households earned less than $50,000 annually, 21 percent earned $100,000 to $199,000, and only 5 percent earned more than $200,000. On our campuses however, only 30.9 percent of freshmen report their annual family income as less than $50,000, while 24.8 percent report household earnings of $100,000 to $199,000, and a whopping 12 percent report incomes exceeding $200,000 (Chronicle of Higher Education 2011). Given current college costs, this may not seem surprising, but it does not begin to approach equal access, even given the commitment of many elite schools to meeting students’ total financial need.

Figure 2. Family adjusted gross income comparisons

Richard Kahlenberg’s (2004) research indicates that “economically disadvantaged students are 25 times less likely to be found on elite college campuses than economically advantaged students. And yet,” he adds, “this phenomenon receives none of the attention or moral outrage associated with efforts to curtail racial preferences.” Race and socioeconomic class can coincide, presenting even greater obstacles to access for poor black and Latino students, who do not benefit from our habit of construing diversity only in terms of race. But these factors can also operate independently. In their book, The Shape of the River, William Bowen and Derek Bok (2000) reported that 86 percent of black students who enrolled in the twenty-eight selective universities they studied were middle class or upper-middle class. So, relying upon racial identity as a proxy for class is not advisable.

Recent research has also demonstrated that the academic achievement gap across socioeconomic strata has been growing. According to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski (2011), 54 percent of the affluent students born in the United States between 1979 and 1982 were able to complete college, compared with only 9 percent of low-income students from the same generation. Since college completion is the most important indicator of success in the workplace, the inability of students from lower socioeconomic classes to complete college has lifelong effects for them and their families (DeParle 2012).

In addition to socioeconomic status, we need to consider worldview when we are discussing diversity. Class and race may often align with political and ideological belief, but that alignment is far from perfect. The foundations of our society and our democratic government require us to be able to talk respectfully with people who hold different opinions and have different backgrounds than we do.

As the Personal and Social Responsibility Index makes clear, in order to educate productive citizens, we need to nurture students’ capabilities to see the world from many different perspectives (AAC&U 2011). This can only happen if our campuses are populated with students who hold a wide range of beliefs and feel free to engage in discussions about them.

But examining the social and political beliefs of our students reveals surprising homogeneity. According to the 2010 Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey, freshmen students in this country fall along a fairly smooth bell curve in terms of identifying as liberal or conservative, but when asked about specific national issues that traditionally define liberal or conservative perspectives, they show remarkably high levels of political homogeneity. More than 76 percent of freshman surveyed in 2010 supported the rights of a gay or lesbian couple to adopt a child, 63.1 percent felt that global warming should be a federal priority, 67.5 percent supported increasing handgun control, and 78.2 percent thought that the federal government was not doing enough to control environmental pollution (Pryor et al. 2010). While I personally endorse many of these positions, they are hardly representative of the national population’s opinions. According to recent polls, for example, only 46 percent of Americans support adoption by gay and lesbian couples, and the nation is about equally divided in terms of whether it is more important to limit or protect the rights of Americans to own guns (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2008; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2011). Similarly, according to other recent polls, the general populace is much less worried about pollution and global warming than our students are (Leiserowitz, Maibach, and Roser-Renouf 2010; Saad 2009). The broad picture is clear: whereas the country is roughly equally divided on controversial social and political issues, a much higher percentage of our students are likely to express liberal views.

Of course, some institutions are more homogenous in terms of class and worldview than others. From 1980 to 1996, I taught on the faculty of Brown University, which was one of the most racially and ethnically diverse campuses I have known. Students of all colors mixed together in classrooms and student organizations. Interracial dating was widely accepted, and Greek organizations were integrated. However, in another sense, it was one of the most homogeneous campuses I have known. The vast majority of students there came from affluent families and held expressly liberal political views. My husband and I used to say that when students parked their upscale cars in our driveway, it raised the property value of our house. Any student who had difficulty paying for textbooks was silent and tried to make do with the library’s holdings.

Similarly, any student who disagreed with the dominant ideology kept quiet for fear of being ridiculed. As a professor who taught feminist theory, I felt at home at Brown. However, I had to work extremely hard to convince my students that any intelligent person might disagree with the positions taken by feminist writers. When I brought in opposing views, my students too often dismissed the writers as uneducated—as not worth engaging in debate. It was a very comfortable learning environment in which the students were all convinced that they were right because no one disagreed with them. They could congratulate themselves on being politically savvy while looking askance at those on the “wrong” side of the issue. Because the university was so homogeneous ideologically, it was, quite simply, not inclusive and, in this sense, not excellent.

I do not intend to demean Brown at all, and it may well have changed in the fifteen years since I left there. It is a fine school, and the faculty do a superb job of challenging extremely bright students to do their best work. But I suspect that in terms of socioeconomic and political diversity it cannot measure up to the college where I am now honored to serve as president.

Invisible diversity

If you took a picture of the student body at Washington & Jefferson College, it would look relatively homogenous. About 17 percent of our 1,500 students are students of color, although many students who come from mixed racial backgrounds might appear Caucasian at first glance. Only 13 percent of our faculty and 6 percent of our staff are nonwhite. There is no question that we need to improve the racial and ethnic diversity of our faculty, staff, and students. But nevertheless, this small college does a remarkable job, I would maintain, in preparing students to be active participants in a diverse and democratic society because we have considerable invisible diversity. Here, students who never crossed the county line before coming to college are roommates with students who have traveled the world. Farmer’s children and Wall Street financiers’ children work together in our laboratories and service organizations. At Washington & Jefferson, we have a wide spectrum of political views represented—and by large groups of students. About half of our students identify as Republicans, and half as Democrats. About half of our students say they hold primarily conservative views, and half say they are liberal. In this environment, students learn how to talk about deeply emotional and divisive issues with those who disagree with them—and to do so with respect.

When I was a presidential candidate at Washington & Jefferson in the fall of 2004, the national presidential campaign was mired in discussions of “swift boat” incidents. It was a very divisive time. But during my visit to campus, two young men came up and introduced themselves to me as the most politically active students on campus. “He’s the most conservative,” one said of the other, “and I am the most liberal. And,” he added, “we’re roommates.” I asked whether they watched the presidential debates together. No, they had rules, they said. They watched the debates in separate rooms but met later to discuss them. And they would often talk for hours in the cafeteria or the residence hall. Later, when I lived on campus, I would see them, the one who always wore a tie and the other whose shirt had never seen an iron, sitting together and talking animatedly about politics. Since the election was coming up, I asked one of the two, “Do you think you will ever change your roommate’s mind about the campaign?” “No,” the student replied, “but I have to keep trying, because I respect him.”

During my first year at Washington & Jefferson, I also saw the power of socioeconomic diversity when I met two freshman roommates, one from a small farm in rural West Virginia and the other from an exclusive, gated community in Los Angeles. For Thanksgiving vacation, the girl from Los Angeles went home with her West Virginia roommate. She had traveled to several different countries, she said, but she had never been inside a barn and “that close to real cows.” “You wouldn’t believe what I learned!” she told me. The next year, the two girls remained roommates and spent Thanksgiving in Los Angeles. I am confident that this was a learning experience for both, one that complemented and made real all their courses in economics, sociology, and American history.

Every day I continue to be impressed by the ways in which the ideological differences expressed by students on the Washington & Jefferson campus enhance their learning. Some colleges must stage “difficult dialogues” in order to get students talking. On this campus, difficult dialogues happen every day. One reason we have this kind of invisible diversity is our location. We are at the border of the East Coast region and the Midwest, near a financially vibrant, cosmopolitan city and also in the foothills of Appalachia. Nurturing a truly diverse political community is a deep-rooted tradition here. When Washington College and Jefferson College were forced to join in 1865, the two schools had an almost equal number of students who had taken leaves of absence to fight for the North as those who had left to fight for the South in the Civil War. So, when the veterans returned, they found themselves members of a newly united college, one in which they shared classrooms and residence halls with those they had tried to kill in the bloody battles of the Civil War. There were sword duels on campus, but gradually these young men, with strongly held opposing views, found a way to live and learn together. From this experience grows our motto, Juncta Juvant, Together We Thrive.

There are, of course, other colleges that, like Washington & Jefferson, have socioeconomically and ideologically diverse student populations. Simply by virtue of their size, large institutions usually have students who represent a wide spectrum of classes and ideologies. But on those city-sized campuses, students can and do form homogeneous groups and create their own islands of comfortable consensus. The “granola group” can live together off campus or gather at the student-run coffeehouse. The social conservatives can join a particular Greek organization. Wealthy students can live in expensive apartments, while poorer students occupy spartan residence halls or live at home. While diversity may be present in the student bodies of these large universities, it is often not part of an individual student’s experience. At a small college, however, if there is socioeconomic and ideological diversity present in the student body, individual students will necessarily be aware of it as they eat together in the same dining hall, share classes, and live together in residence halls.

It is time that we dispel the popular myth that small colleges are socioeconomically homogeneous. In fact, small colleges generally have greater diversity in terms of class than large institutions do. In Pennsylvania, for example, independent colleges enroll more than one-third of the state’s Pell grant recipients, despite their small size. (The other two thirds are about equally divided between the state institutions and the community colleges.) And, from 1997 to 2007, these small colleges increased their annual enrollment of Pell grant recipients by more than 14,000, while large institutions added only a total of 510 Pell recipients to their total enrollment. I have shared these data with colleagues in other states who report that their numbers are comparable.

More important than numbers, however, is the way in which many small colleges emphasize the invisible aspects of their diversity. At Washington & Jefferson, for example, a group of students who took a first-year seminar on the American presidency have now formed a “civics house,” where students choose to live with those who differ from them in terms of politics and ideology. This very visible symbol of the students’ commitment to dialogue across lines of difference emphasizes the college’s commitment to fostering civil discourse for civic ends.

Promoting inclusive excellence

As we promote inclusive excellence on our campuses, our admissions processes must consider not only race and ethnicity, but also class and ideology. How can we do this? Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms indicate parents’ income, educational levels, and occupations. Information is also available to identify high schools with only a small proportion of their graduates going on to four-year colleges or a large proportion of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. All of these markers of class can be used not only to establish financial aid packages, but also to give applicants from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds well-deserved credit for overcoming obstacles in their education that might, for example, reduce their SAT scores. Students from low socioeconomic strata who have excellent grades and strong teacher recommendations but low SAT scores might have those scores routinely discounted. Paying attention to class in this way might result in a more favorable review of socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants’ credentials or more generous financial aid packages than their academic record might initially merit. As Richard Kahlenberg (2004) points out, "A 3.6 grade-point average and SAT score of 1200 surely means something more for a low-income first-generation college applicant who attended terrible schools than for a student whose parents have graduate degrees and pay for the finest private schooling."

It may be a bit more difficult to ensure political and ideological diversity, but extracurricular activities, interviews, and admissions essays may provide some clues. We need to use whatever information we can gather to determine the extent of ideological diversity on our campuses and work hard consciously to increase our heterogeneity through shaping our entering classes. At Washington & Jefferson, we introduce prospective students to our ideological diversity in several different ways. For example, student panelists at admissions events discuss the cultural, social, and political organizations to which they belong, and as president I stress the importance of campus’s ideological diversity at most major campus gatherings. Therefore, students who arrive on the campus are prepared to enter into conversation with those who do not necessarily share their opinions and beliefs. In this way, we establish a self-fulfilling expectation for ideological diversity.

But admitting students from truly diverse populations is not enough. We must also make our faculty and staff aware of the need to welcome students from all backgrounds. Faculty who require costly field trips, for example, need to consider how they will accommodate students with limited means, and those requiring live performances might consider options for students whose work schedules preclude their attendance. Faculty and staff may need to attend workshops on overcoming socioeconomic and political prejudice, just as they now participate in workshops on overcoming racial and ethnic prejudice. Teaching centers that help faculty determine whether they favor students of a particular race or gender might address similar questions about class and ideology.

It would also be helpful for national databases to record information not just about race and ethnicity, but also about socioeconomic and political diversity on our campuses. The National Survey of Student Engagement and CIRP could both be helpful in providing colleges more information about their class and ideological heterogeneity as well. Finally, those funders who have a mission to reward campuses for promoting diversity might ask colleges to demonstrate their commitment to broader definitions of inclusive excellence.

As a country, we must overcome our reluctance to discuss socioeconomic class and politics. We must not only enroll students from all socioeconomic classes and representing all ideologies, we must welcome them, ensuring that their voices are heard. I am convinced that we had conservative students and poor students at Brown—they were just hidden. We need to celebrate both the visible and the invisible diversity of our campuses so that we can prepare future citizens to engage in productive, respectful civic discourse with those who disagree with them. Without this kind of commitment to multiple aspects of diversity, our colleges will not be able to produce the kind of citizens who will keep our democracy vibrant.               


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2011. “Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility.” Association of American Colleges and Universities. Accessed February 24.

Bailey, M. J., and S. M. Dynarski. 2011. “Inequality in Postsecondary Education.” In Whither Opportunity?, edited by G. J. Duncan and R. Murnane, 117–32. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bowen, W. G., and D. Bok. 2000. The Shape of the River. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011. “A Profile of This Year’s Freshmen,” January 27,

DeParle, J. 2012. “Harder for Americans to Rise from Economy’s Lower Rungs.” New York Times, January 5, A1.

Kahlenberg, R. 2004. “Toward Affirmative Action for Economic Diversity.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50 (28): B11.

Leiserowitz, A., E. Maibach, and C. Roser-Renouf. 2010. Climate Change in the American Mind: Americans’ Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in January 2010. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change.

Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. 2008. More Americans Question Religion’s Role in Politics. Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 2011. Fewer Are Angry at Government, But Discontent Remains High. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Pryor, J. H., S. Hurtado, L. DeAngelo, L. Palucki Blake, and S. Tran. 2010. The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, University of California–Los Angeles.

Saad, L. 2009. “Water Pollution Americans’ Top Green Concern.” Gallup, March 25,

Snyder, T. D., and S. A. Dillow. 2011. Digest of Education Statistics 2010. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education.


1. Even this picture is clouded, though, since on the national census more than half of those who identified themselves as Hispanic, Latino, or Mexican in national origin also identified as “white” when asked for their race. How these individuals are counted in terms of race on college campuses may vary widely from institution to institution. (The six racial categories presented on the census were White, Black or African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and Some Other Race.)

Tori Haring-Smith is president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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