Expert Commentary

College mission and diversity statements: What they do and do not say

2012 study from the University of Memphis analyzing the language around diversity in the school mission statements of 80 post-secondary institutions.

U.S. colleges have steadily seen more racial minorities walk through their gates in recent decades. As the National Center for Education Statistics notes, over the period 1976 to 2010 Hispanics rose from just 3% of college students to 13%, and African-Americans rose from 9% to 14%; meanwhile, the percentage of white students fell from 83% to 61%. Still, the rate at which young white persons enroll in college remains higher than that for minorities. (For more detail on these dynamics, see the federal government’s 2012 “Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study.”)

How are institutions of higher education dealing with this demographic change? A 2012 study published in Innovative Higher Education, “Mission and Diversity Statements: What They Do and Do Not Say,” analyzed institutional mission and diversity statements of some 80 institutions, as well as supporting documents and statements available on the schools’ websites. The researchers, from the University of Memphis, note that “an institution’s mission statement represents a consensus on campus-wide values, expectations for student learning and development, and a statement of campus priorities for many years ahead.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Of the 80 schools studied, 75% (59) mentioned diversity in some way in their mission statement, although only 19% mentioned racial or ethnic diversity: “When broken down by institutional type, diversity was mentioned by 50% of the baccalaureate institutions and referred to the changing demographics of students and/or faculty population; and 45% of these institutions also communicated an appreciation for cultural diversity. The mention of diversity was higher for the community colleges, and 55% of these institutions included references to cultural diversity with 10% mentioning racial/ethnic diversity.”
  • Sixteen percent of mission statements referenced diversity in terms of international heritage. Gender diversity was included in 14% of the mission statements, and class/socioeconomic status was included in 8%. Sexual orientation, religion and age each were each referenced in 5% of the statements. The least referenced were definitions of diversity related to geography or disability, which occurred in 3% of the sample.
  • Sixty-five percent of the institutions had a distinct diversity statement; these include official documents or policies and administrative statements. Only 12% of the institutions had a readily obtainable diversity plan: “These plans listed initiatives such as engaging the campus community on diversity efforts (50%), charging them to take action (33%), and addressing the recruitment and retention of minority students/ faculty (17%).”
  • “A total of 12% of diversity statements addressed institutional culture. Chiefly, organizational goals such as the institution striving to increase minority representation in the student body and faculty ranks in order to broaden the cultural landscape of the campus were mentioned by 50% of the institutions, while values were mentioned by 33%. Only 17% of the institutions offered their definition of diversity and what it meant to the campus community.”

“If one believes that diversity is an essential obligation of all public higher education institutions,” the authors write, “then these figures are disappointing as they imply that 25% to 35% of public institutions do not include diversity issues in their primary documents.” They suggest further research in this area: “While we cannot hypothesize why institutions chose to include or exclude diversity, it may be enough to suggest that institutions reflect on whether their statements accurately describe their values or if they do not and then explore why that may be so.”

Tags: higher education, Hispanic, Latino, African-American, youth

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