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DEI on College Campuses: Impact and Benefits for Diverse Students

Multicultural and diverse campuses offer a number of benefits, including unique opportunities to learn and grow in an inclusive community that represents a broader worldview. But how can you ensure that you are choosing a school that values cultural diversity and supports all students equally? Use this guide as a jumping-off point to get started.

Author: Emily Kelley

Editor: Staff Editor

A group of six joyful young adults from diverse backgrounds laugh and embrace, posing closely together on a sunny day in an urban setting.

Diversity, according to Harvard University, is the “condition of being different or having differences.” Our society is certainly growing increasingly diverse — in fact, according to recent data, only 10% of Baby Boomers were comprised of two or more ethnicities, while 53% of Gen Z and younger fall into this category. And the United States Census Bureau found that the multiracial population increased from 9 million people in 2010 to 33.8 million people in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, research routinely demonstrates the value of diversity in creating a strong, vibrant and creative society, which also translates to higher education. Clearly, you’ll benefit from finding a college that values diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on campus — one that supports students who hail from a variety of backgrounds. This guide will help you further explore the benefits of DEI in education and show you how to identify schools that are prioritizing inclusivity. You’ll also discover resources to explore and an insightful interview with a DEI expert. Keep reading to gain a deeper understanding of this increasingly relevant — and vitally important — social topic.

Diversity on College Campuses

In an increasingly diverse society, institutions of higher learning that fail to actively foster diversity, equity, and inclusion will fall behind. Therefore, it is in their best interests to diligently pursue measures that make higher education welcoming and accessible for all. However, this is not a simple task. There are many interrelated facets to creating such an atmosphere, such as encouraging diversity in the classroom, offering diversity training to educators, and enacting DEI policies. In the section below, you’ll learn about how these aspects and more are critical for supporting diverse student bodies.

Supporting Student Diversity & Inclusion

Colleges can foster a supportive and inclusive atmosphere for a diverse student population in many ways. These efforts should be multifaceted and include strategies and initiatives aimed at recruitment and retention of diverse, marginalized, and underrepresented groups of students. For example, colleges may institute pipeline programs that aim to attract promising students from diverse backgrounds.

Once these students are enrolled, the college should further support them through retention measures, including tutoring, mentorship, student organizations, financial counseling, and addressing deficits that can interfere with student achievement, such as lack of access to food, affordable housing, transportation, and childcare. Furthermore, diversity-focused scholarship opportunities can also help ensure the retention and success of students in need. Another vital component of robust support efforts is the existence of a DEI task force or committee that consists of both faculty and students and is responsible for assessing and improving DEI best practices.

Creating Diverse Classes

Diversity in the classroom starts with the college’s recruitment practices that aim to attract students and faculty from a wide swath of cultures, backgrounds, and identities. After that, it’s up to the individual professor to create a classroom environment that is welcoming, inclusive, and equitable for all. University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers research-backed approaches, recommending that professors get to know students and consider how their social and cultural backgrounds affect their classroom experiences.

Beyond this, they should incorporate a wide array of social and cultural perspectives into their curricula and use teaching methods that address the learning styles of the students in their classroom. Additional guidelines from the University of Maryland suggest that professors should help students get to know one another, take care to avoid marginalizing underrepresented groups, and include a syllabus statement that addresses civil dialogue and respect of diverse viewpoints.

Diversity Trainings for College Educators

Diversity trainings increase educators’ awareness of topics relevant to diversity and inclusion and provide them with practical ways to improve the atmosphere of their classrooms. One study that evaluated the effectiveness of a mandatory faculty diversity training reached out to instructors with a follow-up survey a year later to see what changes participants had made to their teaching.

Respondents reported that their teaching had become more inclusive, and they made changes to their curricula that included more cultural celebration and visible diversity in assigned authors. They also reported greater awareness of less visible forms of prejudice and became more sensitive to language and potentially marginalizing situations. Other research surveyed students of instructors who had participated in diversity trainings. These students reported feeling more included, visible, and valued in class.

Why DEI Policies Matter on College Campuses

Robust DEI policies in institutions of higher education help ensure that everyone feels valued, heard, and included — students and faculty alike. And this is the ideal scenario for colleges and universities which, by their very definition, are dedicated to open-mindedness and exploration. But beyond this, DEI policies are crucial to student success because they foster a sense of belonging.

One Inside Higher Ed study found that students who felt a sense of belonging exhibited greater persistence and fewer mental health issues. Some colleges, such as the 2022 Diversity Champions selected by Insight into Diversity Magazine, are going above and beyond in their efforts to succeed in creating diverse and inclusive campus environments. The huge variety of initiatives, scholarships, and trainings offered by schools on this list, such as Clemson University and Indiana University Bloomington, demonstrates how they’re making DEI a top priority.

Benefits of a Multicultural & Diverse Student Body

As you’ve learned, fostering student diversity is a smart (and ethical) move for colleges, but diversity is just as valuable for the educational experience itself. Attending a university that prioritizes diversity can actually help all students experience future success. In fact, there are a multitude of benefits that students experience as a result of attending class alongside people who hail from a wide variety of backgrounds. Keep reading to learn about just a few of these positive effects.

Enriches the Educational Experience for All

Although formal instruction in college is delivered by professors, students can also learn a great deal informally through interactions with one other. And the learning opportunities are even more numerous when the student body is richly diverse. Students who learn in culturally and socially diverse settings get the opportunity to build authentic connections and friendships with people different from themselves, and in so doing, gain fresh perspectives. This type of learning is undoubtedly more memorable and meaningful than any lesson that comes from a textbook.

Broadens Perspectives & Global Thinking

When students must interact and collaborate with people who are culturally and socially different from themselves, they tend to build greater understanding of and empathy for others. Furthermore, when students connect emotionally with others’ experiences and perspectives, they are more likely to zoom out, examine their own place in the “big picture,” and contemplate how everything fits together. For example, a professor in one study noted that when students from different cultures worked together to interpret literary pieces, they arrived at much deeper, more sophisticated analyses than they would have on their own. Bringing their multiple cultural contexts together on the task helped them to consider aspects of the text that they might not have considered before.

Strengthens Communities

Students who learn in diverse classrooms are better poised to productively transfer their understandings and broadened perspectives to their larger communities. The empathy that they cultivate helps them to live harmoniously with people of different backgrounds and engage in positive activities that make their neighborhoods and cities better places for everyone. In fact, research summarized by The Century Foundation shows that students from diverse learning environments demonstrate improved civic attitudes toward democratic participation and community activities.

Promotes Personal Growth

Exposure to diversity can push people out of their comfort zones and help them grow in many ways — socially, emotionally, philosophically, and intellectually. Moreover, getting to know people dissimilar to yourself can also lead to greater curiosity and introspection. For instance, students interviewed in research from the American Council on Education said that being exposed to different experiences and viewpoints caused them to be more aware of their own biases and opinions. Faculty members in the same study also reported that they did more research and writing as a result of interacting with students in a multicultural classroom.

Prepares Students for More Diverse Workplaces

The interactions and experiences students have in the classroom can serve as valuable practice for the workplace. That is, if students are accustomed to diversity in the classroom, they will be socially equipped for the business world, which is constantly becoming more globalized. To be successful, employees must be comfortable working and communicating with people from any culture or background; therefore, students’ prior experiences in diverse settings will serve them well.

Promotes Creative Thinking

The brain thrives on novelty. In fact, research shows that people tend to be more creative when their thinking is stimulated by exposure to other people’s ideas; obviously, a diverse classroom is the perfect setting for this type of novel idea exchange. Furthermore, marketing strategist Bas Korsten notes that diversity also makes the brain work harder to challenge stereotypes. And the harder the brain works, the more creative it becomes. Yet another study shows that when white college students are placed into groups with members of minorities, they produce essays of higher integrative complexity (a cognitive style that incorporates multiple perspectives and viewpoints) and demonstrate improved reading comprehension on race-relevant passages.

How to Find Diverse Master’s Programs

Although the importance of attending a school that values and encourages diversity is evident, you will still have to conduct some research to determine whether your school of interest is doing its job to promote DEI. There are many steps you can take to assess this, but the bottom line is that you’ll need to do some worthwhile homework. Keep reading below to find out what to look for in a master’s program to determine if it has the diversity and inclusive atmosphere you’re seeking.

Look for University Enrollment Data

Perhaps the best — and most obvious — sign of a university that values, promotes, and protects diversity is its enrollment data. Start with analyzing national enrollment trends through websites such as National Student Clearinghouse or the National Center for Education Statistics. This will give you a baseline for comparison to determine how welcoming the school you’re considering is to diverse populations. To find enrollment data and demographics for specific schools, use a tool such as the College Navigator from the National Center for Education Statistics or the reports tool from Data USA.

Speak with Professors or Department Advisors

To get an even better idea of the campus climate and attitude toward diversity, equity, and inclusion, consider speaking with instructors or department advisors. Ask them for their honest opinions about whether or not the institution does enough to uphold its commitment to these values. It is also a good idea to ask about the prevalence of inclusive teaching strategies and general attitudes toward these practices.

Speak with Current Students or Recent Grads

Who better to answer your questions about diversity and atmosphere than students who have attended (or are currently attending) your school of interest? If you don’t personally know any current students or recent grads, try asking your friends, family, and acquaintances on social media if they know of anyone who would be willing to chat. Online forums, such as Reddit, are also a great place to anonymously connect with people who can answer your questions. Or you can reach out to an admissions advisor to see if he or she can connect you with anyone.

Look for Diverse Campus Groups

Clubs, student organizations, and other student groups are an important component of a campus that values diversity and inclusion. Such groups go a long way toward fostering a sense of belonging among students, which is an important factor in student retention and success. Peruse the school’s website to find them; they will most likely be listed under student resources or community. Typically, a greater variety of groups means more diversity on campus. For some good examples, check out the huge assortment of groups at the University of Kentucky and the University of Cincinnati.

Check the School's DEI Policies and Practices

The presence of a clear DEI statement on a school’s website demonstrates a commitment to furthering these values. In addition to a statement of philosophy or principles, look for a list of specific actions or goals. Miami University, for example, outlines the actions the school has committed to taking to further its DEI goals. Another important aspect to consider is whether the school uses a metric for evaluating its progress on DEI measures. A good illustration of this is Virginia Commonwealth University’s metric, the VCU Climate Report, which the university uses to determine the success of its DEI measures.

Resources & Support for Diverse Students

Even if your school is excellent at implementing DEI measures, it never hurts to seek additional support. Fortunately, if you are a student from a diverse background or underrepresented group, tons of resources are available to further facilitate your success. In the section below, we’ve compiled a list of just a few of these helpful organizations, websites, podcasts, and more. Check them out to learn how they can assist you.

Black and African American Students

  • Black Girl Does Grad School: This online blog/web magazine offers content by and for Black women in pursuit of advanced degrees. Content is searchable and organized by topic.
  • Blk + In Grad School Podcast: Here you’ll find tips, encouragement, and inspiration for women and POC who are undertaking their grad school journey — available on Podbay, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify.
  • National Black Graduate and Professional Students Organization: This site addresses the needs of Black graduate students by providing leadership, training, mentoring opportunities, and career placement services.
  • National Black Law Students Association: Check out this student-run organization that offers guidance on applying to and navigating law school as well as mentoring by law students and law professionals.
  • United Negro College Fund: This website provides private scholarships to minority group members in order to increase the number of African American students who enter college and graduate.

Latino and Hispanic Students

  • Association of Latino Professionals for America: This resource provides opportunities for scholarships, networking with professionals, paid internships, and jobs to Latino men and women to help them succeed in every sector of the global economy.
  • Excelencia in Education: Browse information from this non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the success of Latino students in higher education. Its focus: research and analysis to influence policy and advance institutional practices.
  • Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities: This national association represents existing and emerging Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI), offering a variety of student programs, scholarship opportunities, internships, and conferences.
  • Hispanic Scholarship Fund: You’ll find scholarships for exceptional students at this website, which also offers college planning resources, a college finder tool, and the Hispanic Careers Pathway Initiative.
  • Latinas with Masters Podcast: Listen to interviews, guidance, tips, and inspiration for Latinx students pursuing higher education.

Asian & Pacific Islander

  • Asian-American Scholar Forum: This non-profit organization advocates for the rights of American scholars of Asian descent and features informative webinars and news relevant to Asian-American scholars.
  • Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholars: Here you’ll find scholarships, mentoring, and leadership training to help students successfully transition to the workforce.
  • Asian Law Students’ Association: Visit the website of this non-profit, non-political organization with 17 chapters that connects law students across Asia. Among its offerings, you’ll find a magazine and various forums, conferences, and competitions.
  • Asian Pacific Islander Speech-Language-Hearing Caucus: If you’re seeking support and resources for Asian Pacific Islander professionals in audiology and speech-language pathology and professionals who serve API populations, this is your destination. The organization advocates for access to high-quality speech, language, cognitive, and hearing services for API populations.
  • South Pacific Islander Organization: This non-profit volunteer organization provides digital resources and programs designed to promote the success of Pacific Islanders in higher education.

Native American & Alaskan Native

  • American Indian College Fund: Research scholarships, leadership programs, and academic resources designed to help American Indian students pursue higher education at this site, which also contains guides on choosing a college, completing applications, and money management.
  • American Indian Education Fund: AIEF is a program that provides scholarships and other resources for Native American students who are pursuing a degree.
  • National Indian Education Association: The NIEA hosts and promotes a variety of programs and projects that aim to advance comprehensive, culture-based educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
  • Native Forward Scholars Fund: Here, you’ll find scholarships and resources for Native American college students, as well as guides on preparing for and affording college.
  • The Aleut Foundation: This site provides scholarships, career development, leadership training, and access to resources such as tutoring and student loan referrals for the Aleutian people.

LGBTQIA+ Students

  • Campus Pride: Find support for LGBTQ and ally students in the form of resources, programs, and services at this website, which includes guidance on finding LGBTQ-friendly campuses through the Campus Pride Index.
  • Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics: oSTEM works to promote the success of LGBTQ+ students in STEM fields, featuring a scholarship program, graduate school application assistance, and many other helpful resources.
  • Point Foundation: Access this LGBTQ scholarship fund that financially assists LGBTQ students of merit; you’ll also find resources for mentorship, leadership development, and community service training at this website.
  • Reaching Out MBA: This organization promotes the success of MBA students and alumni by hosting a fellowship program as well as various retreats, summits, and conferences.
  • The National LGBTQ+ Bar Association: An association comprised of lawyers, judges, legal professionals, law students, and activists, its goal is justice in the legal profession for the LGBTQ+ community. You’ll find resources such as a job board, educational series, and law school campus climate survey at this site.

Students with Disabilities

  • ADA National Network: This resource offers information, guidance, and training on how to implement the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Check out event listings as well as informative materials and fact sheets that explain the rights of individuals with disabilities.
  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network: Research a variety of educational resources aimed to help people with autism take control of their education, lives, and futures by being strong self-advocates.
  • College Autism Network: This network aims to link people involved in efforts to improve access, experiences, and outcomes for college students with autism. Here you’ll find a searchable database of autism-specific college support programs.
  • Diagnosis Grad School Podcast: Listen in on this documentary podcast series that explores the challenges and realities of pursuing a graduate degree with a disability. The host shares her real-life experiences in hopes of improving the educational experiences of current and future students.
  • DREAM: Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) is a network focused on advancing the interests of students with disabilities in post-secondary institutions. They offer networking, peer support, mentoring, and educational materials.

International Students

  • Fulbright Foreign Student Program: Looking for grants that enable graduate students to study and conduct research in the United States? This is your resource, which also features an informative blog, a list of partner agencies, and a foreign language teaching assistant program.
  • Guide to Campus Resources for International Students: Gain insights from this article from U.S. News & World Report that provides tips for international students on accessing relevant resources on campus.
  • International Student: Utilize this website’s abundant resources for international students, including financial aid guidance, information on visas and immigration, test prep, college search, international student job center, and more.
  • Study in the States: This website from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contains resources and educational materials for becoming an international student in the United States.
  • VOA Learning English Podcast: Voice of American provides English-language instruction at all levels — beginning, intermediate, and advanced. The site uses high-interest topics to engage learners and is also available through YouTube.

General Resources

Interview with a DEI Expert

Amanda Knapp

Amanda Knapp, Ph.D. is the Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Academic Affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dr. Knapp earned a B.S. in Business Administration with a focus on Human Resources Management as well as an Ed.M. in Education with a focus on Higher Education Administration. Dr. Knapp also holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy from the University of Maryland, College Park where her research examined the relationship between best online instructional practices and undergraduate student perceptions of instructor credibility. As a Dean in Higher Education, Knapp is committed to bridging the equity divide.

What are some effective ways to engage students in diversity and inclusion initiatives on campus?

Diversity and inclusion initiatives must be something that is embedded in the culture of a university and a value that is embodied by the entire community. It should not be a one-off event that students are asked to participate in but rather the core of every interaction and seamlessly weaved throughout the student experience. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), for instance, “we value each other as whole people, and we come together to learn, solve problems, create new things, and just have fun.” The vision of UMBC is as follows which is at the heart of our work and the expectations of every community member:

Vision: Our UMBC community redefines excellence in higher education through an inclusive culture that connects innovative teaching and learning, research across disciplines, and civic engagement. We will advance knowledge, economic prosperity, and social justice by welcoming and inspiring inquisitive minds from all backgrounds.UMBC has an Office for Equity and Inclusion as well as an Inclusion Council for instance – other campuses may have something similar.

How can universities collaborate with community organizations to promote diversity and inclusion?

If civic and community engagement is at the heart of a university, as it is at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, natural and authentic partnerships can be formed. It is about both welcoming and weaving the community and external partners into the fabric of our work on college campuses to ensure that all students, regardless of differences, see the university as a place that not only welcomes diversity and inclusion but lives it and encourages it – through admissions, internship/research opportunities. Place priority on creating partnerships, external to the university, that involve diverse stakeholders to create key pipelines for knowledge and growth.

What steps can universities take to address the intersectionality of diversity, including issues of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and socio-economic status?

When we talk about equity and inclusion it means that we must recognize that we do not all start from the same place. Every student has a story that is unique based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexuality, gender, physical and mental abilities and all of the intersectionality’s. As we welcome students into the higher education community, recognizing and appreciating these differences, it is our responsibly to make the necessary adjustments to level the playing field and break down barriers to success. This requires empathy and understanding and commitment to providing a steadfast safety net (i.e., academic support, financial support, etc.) to address the imbalances. At UMBC, I am responsible for bringing together an Academic Care Team for instance that centers the student and an assigned Academic Advocate at the center.

How can universities work to create a more inclusive campus environment for individuals with disabilities?

I’ve copied information below from our Student Disability Services (SDS) office at UMBC as this summarize ways to create a more inclusive campus for students with disabilities quite well. I guess the first point to make is that universities should make sure that students have a resource like SDS.

“Research has shown that equity gaps are more likely with traditional assignments such as exams and papers.” Other ways that campuses can create a more inclusive campus are through the curriculum. Make sure that it is accessible in a variety of formats, give students options about how they learn best.

How can universities foster a culture of inclusivity and respect among all members of the campus community?

Create spaces (focus groups, task forces, brown bag lunches, etc.) for authentic and open conversations that involve a wide array of individuals from across the campus community who can share input and ideas from varying perspectives. Ensure that there are reporting mechanisms in place to promote social justice and processes that can quickly address inequities.

What strategies can universities use to promote diversity and inclusion in leadership positions?

There are a few things that I believe universities can do to promote more diversity in leadership, including:

  • Examine hiring practices and conduct salary studies to address inequities
  • Incorporate DEI efforts into performance evaluations
  • Encourage professional development for continuous growth opportunities
  • Reward and recognize successful DEI efforts to demonstrate value and priority

How can universities address systemic issues of inequality and injustice in their policies and practices?

Make training on DEI mandatory for all students, faculty and staff – everyone on campus! Conduct an inventory of departmental and university wide policies as part of an equity review. Provide adequate funding for DEI initiatives. If you want to know what a campus cares about, look at their budget!

How can universities support and empower underrepresented groups on campus?

Host focus groups and surveys to gather student feedback regarding their experiences in and out of the classroom. Collect and examine disaggregated data to determine who is succeeding and who is not. Develop intentional strategies to conduct outreach to provide support to all students, even if the data outcomes include just a few students. At UMBC, I oversee an Academic Advocacy program where each student has an assigned Academic Advocate who is their champion to help resolve any institutional or personal barriers that may impact timely degree completion.

What role can student organizations play in promoting diversity and inclusion on campus?

Create opportunities that are free for students to participate in as well as accessible (variety of offerings at different times of day and also virtual.) Student government can create mechanisms to collect input from the broader student community and ensure that their voice is at the table with campus leadership. Students must leverage these opportunities when given a seat at the table and leadership needs to make sure there is always a seat!