Diversity as a criterion in the college search

Medill~Dec. 5 2018

“Honestly? Probably number one.” That is how Northwestern University freshman Xanh Quang responded when asked how he ranked the diversity of a student population as a criterion in the college search.

Quang is from Chicago and felt that coming from a diverse area shaped his academic experience. “When you have a lot of people from different cultures in one area, you have just more interesting ideas and the people there tend to be a different type. Just being surrounded by different things you become a different person. You become more interesting, and so I didn’t want to lose that,” he says.

In today’s college search process prospective students are looking at a lot more than just academics and tuition cost. While many students still rank academics or location as their most important criteria, they are still conscious of how the demographics of a school can affect their experiences outside the classroom as well as inside. In a survey done of 111 students who applied to college in the 2017/18 school year, 40 percent of them ranked campus diversity in their top three criteria. The diversity of a campus can be especially important to students from underrepresented groups.

“It’s just difficult trying to fit in when you don’t see someone like yourself,” says NU freshman Teresa Vergara Miranda. Miranda identifies as Latino, grew up in Chicago and ranked diversity in her top three criteria of her college search. She spent two weeks at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana for a summer program and found that it lacked diversity. “I felt no sense of belonging at that school,” she says. She wanted to be at a school where diversity was obvious and easy to find. Many schools she looked at had resources and student groups dedicated to underrepresented students where she could possibly connect with other students. However, you had “to seek them out.” When she came to NU she found that it was easy to identify students like herself.

NU Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Jabbar R. Bennett talks with prospective students and their families about diversity at NU. He says that those from underrepresented groups often ask: “Are there other members of these communities that exist? Are there supports for them broadly, outside of the classroom? Is there a competence displayed by faculty and staff who interact with them, so they don’t feel like they are being ‘othered,’ — they’re not being called out in class to give their perspective and opinion of an entire group. And they just want to know, is it an inclusive environment in general?” These questions show that to many students diversity means more than just demographics. They’re also concerned with the level inclusivity and overall culture of a campus. Bennett thinks that importance of diversity in higher education has increased over time because “we can’t deny the population of students who are coming to college.” In fall of 2016, 44.3 percent of enrolled undergraduate students identified as a race/ethnicity other than white compared with just 29.5 percent in fall of 2000, says the National Center for Education Statistics.

Even white students felt there was something to be gained from choosing a diverse school. Evanston Township High School (ETHS) senior Sarah Frieman says she hasn’t looked at schools that “didn’t have at least a good amount of diversity” compared to ETHS. Of the student population of ETHS, 54.4 percent identify as a race/ethnicity other than white. Friemen feels that going to a school as diverse as ETHS has allowed her to be more aware of her privilege as a white person. She wants to go to a school where her worldview will continue to be challenged and where she can continue conversations surrounding diversity and intersectionality. She believes that many of her classmates are also conscious of diversity while choosing a college.

“Because I live on the North Shore [of the Chicago suburbs]… I think that when it comes around for me to choose a college, I will be looking at diversity,” said New Trier High School sophomore Eva Roytburg, “because I do want to have an experience in my college years that’s outside of the one I have now.” Of New Trier’s student population, 83.8 percent identify as white.

During interviews with a class of New Trier students, Roytburg was among the group who said a they plan to be conscious of diversity in their college search. However, many more shook their heads when asked whether the diversity of a campus has or would factor into their college search. Many cited criteria as academics or clubs as more of a priority.

Some students in college from underrepresented groups say that campus diversity didn’t really factor into their college search in comparison to academics. Meredith Modlin, an NU freshman from Shaker Heights, Ohio, says she didn’t particularly pay attention to diversity during her college search, in many of her high school classes, she was commonly the only black student. “I guess I was already used to being in situations where it just wasn’t diverse,” she says.

For students who want to evaluate an institution for its campus diversity and inclusivity, the demographics on a school’s website, campus visits and the school’s office of

diversity/inclusion are all good resources.

Whether or not they were conscious of diversity in their college search, all of the students acknowledged the value of going to a diverse school. “Our world, and our country, is so diverse, and to be not educated on your role, your identity, and what that means, I feel is not being fully educated,” said Frieman.

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Maggie Galloway

Maggie Galloway

Hi there! I’m student from the Bay Area studying journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.