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Citizen Action, Education, Race

Meta-analysis of college diversity experiences and civic engagement

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As college campuses have become increasingly diverse in the past several decades, many have argued that not only is diversity in higher education good for equity’s sake, it also better equips students for life after their studies. Environments that encourage students to have “meaningful engagements with diversity” are said to have strong implications for democratic citizenship and healthy participation in a globalized world. But the methods for achieving this diverse experience have sometimes become contentious, particularly where affirmative action plays a role. The dispute has been at the heart of U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as Gratz v. Bollinger.

A 2011 study from the University of Notre Dame published in the Review of Educational Research, “Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-Analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement,” examines 27 previous studies with a combined sample size of 175,950 undergraduate students to assess if there is a relationship between diversity experiences and civic engagement in later life. The meta-analysis also seeks to determine the extent to which this relationship differed across the studies and how much the characteristics of each study, including civic outcome measured and the type of diversity experience assessed, account for the differences observed among studies.

The study’s findings include:

  • Each of the three main categories of diversity experiences identified in the studies — more students of color on college campuses, diversity related curriculum and extracurricular activities, and interactions with peers of another race — are associated with an increase in civic growth.
  • Experiences characterized as being highly structured are less effective: “Interpersonal interactions with racial diversity are associated with greater civic gains than are diversity course work, cocurricular diversity, and intergroup dialogue. That is, structured diversity experiences are related to increased civic engagement, but interpersonal interactions with racially diverse peers are associated with even greater civic growth.”
  • A stronger relationship was observed between diversity experiences and civic engagement when the indicator measured for civic engagement was related to diversity itself. However, “a significant, positive relationship is observed regardless of the type of diversity experience, the type of civic outcome, and the measurement of civic growth. This consistency implies that even the most rigorous, conservative study will generally find a positive effect of college diversity interactions on civic outcomes.”

The researchers conclude that, despite continuing skepticism on the part of some observers, the findings provide “solid evidence for the benefits of diversity experiences.”

Tags: race, metastudy, higher education, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: December 6, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Notre Dame study "Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-Analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related Chronicle of Higher Education article "Obama Administration Gives Colleges Broad Leeway on Affirmative Action."

    1. What are the key ideas at play in debates over affirmative action in the U.S. in higher education? How does research play a role in the understanding of diversity's place in a society and its importance in the education process?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.