Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Student Experiences with Diversity at Liberal Arts Colleges: Another Claim for Distinctiveness

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Student Experiences with Diversity at Liberal Arts Colleges: Another Claim for Distinctiveness

Article excerpt

Compelling arguments are coming from all quarters that diversity-related experiences benefit individual students, institutions, and society at large. Administrators (Bok, 1982; Rudenstine, 1996) and scholars (Astone & Nunez-Wormack, 1990; Duster, 1993; Gurin, 1999; Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pedersen, & Allen, 1999; Milem & Hakuta, 2000; Rudenstine, 1996; Tierney, 1993) are on record as endorsing the positive educational effects of diversity on campus. So far, the evidence seems to suggest that diversity enhances the educational experiences of all students. However, we are only beginning to understand the relationship between diversity and student experiences while in college.

Gurin (1999) argued that a diverse student body creates a unique learning environment that leads to increased probability that students will interact with peers from different backgrounds. Hurtado et al. (1999) and others (Duster, 1993; Sleeter & Grant, 1994) suggested that diverse peers in the learning environment could improve intergroup relations and mutual understanding by challenging students to refine their thinking and by enriching the dialogue between students. Students who interact with people of races other than their own learn about some of the realities of the multicultural world in which they will eventually be living and working (Astone & Nunez-Wormack, 1990; Tierney, 1993). These interactions, in turn, explain in part why students who report more diversity experiences show greater relative gains in critical and active thinking (Gurin, 1999; Pascarella, Edison, Nora, Hagedorn, & Terenzini, 1996). Experience with diversity also appears to be positively associated with retention rates and degree aspirations (Chang, 1999), more frequent participation in community service (Bowen & Bok, 1998; Gurin, 1999), and higher levels of civic engagement, cultural awareness, and commitment to improving racial understanding (Milem, 1994). Finally, diversity experiences seem to favorably influence overall satisfaction with the college experience and perceptions of the campus climate (Astin, 1993; Chang, 1999, 2001; Milem & Hakuta, 2000).

This brief summary suggests not only that diversity experiences are related to desired substantive outcomes of college, but also that they shape the way students think about themselves in relation to others, about the nature of the activities in which they engage, and about the value they place on attitudes toward others and their skills and competencies in working with different types of people during and after college (Gurin, 1999). That is, as a result of experiencing diversity in college, students learn how to work effectively with others and how to participate actively and contribute to a democratic society. Moreover, through engaging with people from different backgrounds and with different life experiences, students are adding to the foundation of skills and dispositions that is essential for living a productive, satisfying life after college in an increasingly multicultural world. Thus, the very act of experiencing diversity during college helps students develop the habits of the mind and heart that enlarge their capacity for doing so after college (Kuh, 2003; Shulman, 2002).

Forms of Diversity Present on College Campuses

Three forms of diversity that potentially influence the way students think and behave exist to varying degrees on college and university campuses (Chang, 2001; Chang, 2002; Gurin, 1999; Milem & Hakuta, 2000). The first, structural diversity refers to the numerical representation of students from different racial and ethnic groups in the student body (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1998; Hutado et al., 1999). The greater the number of students from different backgrounds, the more likely it is that a student will have an opportunity to interact with someone from a different race or ethnic background. …

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