Diversity Beyond Affirmative Action


November 13, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg

The problem of racial insensitivity on campus has soared to public attention this week thanks to University of Missouri student activism. For too long, too many have reduced the issue of race on campus to a debate about affirmative action in college admissions. Hopefully, the Mizzou protest – and the subsequent college student protests nationwide – will change that.

Because clearly, the protests this week show that affirmative action in college admissions – as important as it is – is a narrow promotion of diversity on campus. There’s no accounting for climate on campus.  There’s no public accountability of higher education as to whether minority students graduate on time or graduate at all.  There’s no incentive for colleges to provide needed support services for those who enter behind. There’s no extra outlay of funds asked of colleges.

Affirmative action is racial progress on campus, but schools need to do much more.  Students and others of all races should demand from the entire education community “a meaningful commitment to diversity”—one that doesn’t begin and end at the admissions office door.

Consider that:

  • A white child is twice as likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 29 as a black child. A child born into the top 20% is three times as likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree as a child born into the bottom 20%.

Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-1



  • Among those who do enter college, there’s a more than 20 percentage point gap in completion rates between white and black students, and a nearly 15 percentage point gap between upper-income and working class students.

Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-2



  • There are scores of colleges with similar admissions standards, similar incoming GPAs, similar percentages of minority students – that get wildly different results.  Take a look at Syracuse and Hofstra. They’re two non-profit private colleges in New York State.  They have a near identical incoming student median SAT score (1160 v. 1161), very similar average incoming student GPA (3.5 v. 3.6), similar price, and similar demographics (8.5% black & 10-11% Latino).  And yet, Hofstra only graduates half of its racial minorities whereas Syracuse graduates three-quarters.

Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-3.2

Or there’s Michigan State and Florida State.  Only 1 in 10 black male students graduates from Michigan State on time.  Florida State has a black male completion rate that is four times higher.  Same incoming GPA, same incoming SAT scores as Michigan State.

Again and again, we see colleges that are intentionally successful and those that are not when it comes to student results.

Three Key Steps

“A meaningful commitment to diversity” in higher education requires at a minimum three key additional reforms beyond consideration of race in admissions. First, we need to make sure all kids are on a college prep track in high school.  Those who struggle should get additional support, but we’ve got to raise our aspirations for all students. The number one indicator of college completion is high school curricular rigor; it’s more important than race, income, and parent education.


Second, we need more fairness in how we finance education — K-12 and in higher education.  I’m in favor of “leveling up.”  But colleges themselves need to recommit to distributing financial aid on the basis of economic need as opposed to using it as bait to attract upper income families with partially discounted tuition.

Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-4


Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-5


Third, we’ve got to start holding colleges at least partially responsible for demonstrating “a meaningful commitment to diversity.”  It’s disgraceful that the University of Virginia, with all its resources (e.g. a more than $5 billion endowment), ranks in the bottom five percent of all colleges on working class student enrollment.  Barely one in 10 students comes from a family in the bottom 40%.  Twice as many working class students score in the top 10 percent on ACT & SAT.

It’s disgraceful that we have colleges like the University of Akron where only 40 percent of students overall and only 17 percent of Black students completed a bachelor’s degree six years from initial enrollment. Those numbers are way below peer institutions that have similar admission standards and enroll similar students.

Meaningful Diversity Commitment Graphs-6


Racial insensitivity on campus at Mizzou, Yale, and a host of other colleges as terrible as it is – and it is terrible – is a symptom of deeper problems that demand profound steps by all. Education should be at the forefront of the effort to address them.  Hopefully, the Mizzou protests and others at other colleges will lead to broader change.  “A meaningful commitment to diversity” is in everyone’s interest.