Thinking Beyond Diversity

Over the last few years, reading the Chronicle of Higher Education has proven to be an emotionally volatile experience. What often leads higher education news are gloomy forecasts regarding the end of any number of things we hold dear: the Humanities, small liberal arts colleges, or—on a bad day—higher ed as we know it. But there’s often at least a partial antidote to these end-is-nigh pronouncements contained in the back pages, particularly the perspective and advice columns from folks actually working in classrooms, interacting regularly with actual students, and thinking deeply about teaching and learning on an everyday basis.

I’ve encountered that pattern recently, in a trio of Chronicle articles which are attracting a significant amount of attention on social media, blogs, and other higher ed conversation spaces. The first of them is a sobering examination of the enrollment struggles faced nationwide by institutions like Grand View, with the cheerful “At the Precipice.” The article opens with the declaration that “the long-predicted crisis in higher education is upon us,” which seems like it’s a little late to the party, to be honest. A recent survey of 292 colleges and universities, conducted by the Chronicle  and the Council of Independent Colleges (of which we are a member institution) reveals that 60% of them missed their enrollment targets, with private institutions missing those targets by a marger margin than publics. Moreover, nearly half of the institutions missed their revenue targets in addition to falling short on enrollments—which shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the interrelated nature of the two. This crisis has been met with a range of institutional responses ranging from closure (as we’ve seen in Masschusetts and Vermont in the last year) to a retooling of enrollment and retention strategies.

This is particularly salient for Iowa institutions; the article points specifically to our region as “becoming an increasingly challenging environment for enrollment—and Iowa, a sparsley populated state with more than two dozen private colleges, is particularly competitive.” Again, tell us something we don’t know, right? For those institutions in our region that are bucking the enrollment trend (the article cites Iowa Wesleyan and Augsburg as examples), the principal strategy seems to be “building the kinds of broad, institutional efforts that are commonly seen as ways to bridge demographic gaps, recruiting nontraditional populations of students, and retaining the ones who are already there.”

Sound familiar?

Grand View’s mission has always been one that emphasizes access, and much of our own institutional identity and history has been defined by serving students from populations which have not historically been well-served by higher education in this country. We’ve identified diversity, equity, and inclusion as institutional goals in an effort to not only attract a more diverse student body, but to support our students equitably once they join our community. Compared to most institutions, the diversification of our student population has been remarkable for both its scope and pace. This is particularly obvious when we use race/ethnicity as an example. When I joined the grand View faculty in the 2004-05 academic year  our student body was 90% white. This spring, our student body is 65% white (MyView login required for links). That’s a remarkable transformation, and it reflects both our institutional values and what the experts are telling us about “future-ready” enrollment strategies.

And that’s where the other two recent Chronicle articles come in. As we’ve learned in our own institutional journey (and as our students of color have told us), a commitment to “diversity” is not by itself sufficient for students in our campus community. It’s one thing to provide access, but another thing altogether to ensure that access is actually meaningful. Access to an environment where one feels like they don’t belong, that they are unsupported, is a sham. As Micere Keels, associate professor of compartive human development at the University of Chicago, pointedly asks: when it comes to “diversity” on campus, “to what extent do administrators think that the bulk of their job has been done once students get onto campus?” We should extend that question to all of us: when we talk about “diversity” at Grand View, do we simply mean minoritized students are expected to assimilate to a climate which otherwise remains unchanged? Keels points to “counterspaces” for minority-group students as a necessary part of any campus climate which both welcomes those students and sustains that welcome. In my reading, the key point in considering counterspaces seems to be:

In those counterspaces, Keels says, identities that are disparaged or ignored in campus cultures are not just explored and deepened but also critiqued. In that way, students may create for themselves a genuine sense of belonging on campus. Lacking that sense, they may retreat from campuses altogether.

Do we foster those spaces on campus? Do we have curricula, for example, that are conducive to these types of practices and healthy identity formation? We have some excellent multicultural programs in place, and we are making an institutional commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. But are those seen as a core part of what we’re doing on an everyday basis, or are they “extras,” add-ons that exist outside the “real work” of the university?

And this is where the final article of the Chronicle trio has something to say. “We know what works to close the achievement gap,” David Gooblar argues; so why aren’t we doing those things? A sense of belonging for students is a crucial part of the equation (as we have been acknowledging in our work at GV this year), but much of that work occurs in the classroom. And for the most part, the things that work aren’t exactly the most revolutionary changes. In some cases, they are simply extensions of the practices we already have in place, but in others they do require approaching things like course design and classroom practice differently. According to Gooblar, some effective practices for a more inclusive pedagogy include:

  • “Highly-structured” courses, where each class session has built-in student work time and iterative low-stakes assessments are integral to the coruse’s design.
  • Fostering a growth mindset, or at the very least seeing students through the lens of one, can have dramatic results: in one study of STEM courses, it was the most important factor in closing the racial achievement gap.
  • “Values-affirmation” exercises can really move the needle for students who typically struggle academically; the theory is that by encouraging them to clarify their own values—what’s truly important to them—they can make stronger connections between those values and their academics, and see themselves as active participants in their education.

And these are but a few examples of how classroom practices infused with the larger mission of increasing a sense of belonging for our students can have specific and significant outcomes for their academic success. Again, there are some things we’re already doing in this list, and other measures and interventions that could be easily implemented with a systematic, institutional commitment (and support!). And the necessary institutional commitment involves encouraging and meaningfulyl supporting the work of inclusion both within our classrooms and other campus spaces.

So while the news may be fairly bleak for the general cohort of colleges in our particular demographic and region, there are ways we can avoid being part of these general trends. Indeed, we’re already doing some of this work. But the hard part is recognizing that this work isn’t ever done and that we have to move beyond a simplistic concept of “diversity” as just enrolling more minority students. Most essentially, though, we must make a fundamental, institution-wide commitment to true equity and a creating a community where everybody is not just welcomed, but continues to see they belong.

We know how to do thse things. Are we willing to do the work?


Tuesday, Mar. 3, 11:00-12:00, Introduction to Open Educational Resources
(Monday, March 2 session cancelled due to a scheduling conflict).

Wednesday, Mar. 4, 3:30-4:30 PM, Instructional Technology: Panopto

Friday, Mar. 6, 12:00-1:00 PM, Instructional Technology: Panopto

For a complete schedule of CETL programming for the semester, click HERE or consult the CETL Calendar.

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