The University Record, March 22, 1999

Research shows diverse environment has educational benefits

By Mark Haas
Office of Communications

Gurin
College students who experience the most racial and ethnic diversity in classrooms and during interactions on campus become better learners and more effective citizens, according to an analysis conducted at the University.

In one of the most broad and extensive empirical studies of college students in relation to diversity, psychology Prof. Patricia Gurin has shown what educators have long believed: All students, non-minority and minority alike, learn better when the learning takes place in a setting where they are confronted with others who are different than themselves.

"A racially and ethnically diverse university student body has far-ranging and significant benefits for all students," said Gurin, who also is interim dean of LS&A. "In fact, patterns of racial segregation and separation historically rooted in our national life can be broken by diversity experiences in higher education."

Gurin, who prepared the study as part of her testimony as an expert defense witness in the lawsuits brought against the University's admission policies, examined national information as well as data gathered at the U-M.

She found that when young people are placed in racially and ethnically diverse classrooms and are exposed to classes that deal with cultural differences, they blossom intellectually when long-held beliefs and ideas are challenged.

In addition, these students develop the ability to understand the ideas and feelings of others, which in later life makes them more likely to live in racially diverse communities, maintain friendships with people of different races and able to function more effectively in an increasingly diverse workplace.

These issues are especially critical for the University, because 92 percent of its white students and 52 percent of its African American students grow up in racially separate communities. Detroit, for example, is the nation's second-most segregated metropolitan area. To help ensure a better, more diverse learning environment for all its students, the University, like most selective American colleges that have many more applicants than can be admitted, does not rely solely on grades and test scores to choose its students.

Even though high school grades are by far the most important determinant of whether a student will be admitted, Michigan considers a variety of other supplemental factors. For example, applicants from rural parts of the state, from under-represented minority groups and from families considered to be economically disadvantaged receive some additional consideration.

Until recently, the assumption among many non-educators had been that a racially diverse class benefited only racial minorities. Gurin's study, however, shows that white students who had the most experience with racial diversity in their classrooms and informal interactions during college demonstrated:

  • Increased scores on a test used to measure complex thinking.

  • More motivation to achieve.

  • Greater intellectual self-confidence and engagement.

  • The highest level of interest in graduate degrees.

  • A greater understanding that group differences are compatible with societal unity.

  • A higher level of motivation to understand the perspectives of other people.

  • Higher levels of citizenship.

  • A greater likelihood after graduation that they will have friends, neighbors and coworkers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

    "Being with others of different races actually seems to make young people more receptive to new knowledge," Gurin said. "This is precisely why the diversity of the student body is essential to fulfilling higher education's mission to enhance learning and encourage democratic outcomes and values."

    Gurin has more than 34 years of experience as a teacher and researcher in the area of intergroup relations. The full text of her study, including references and tables, is on the Web at www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/Admission/Expert/gurintoc.html.


    Admission lawsuits delayed

    Detroit judges have postponed the trial dates for both lawsuits challenging the University's use of race in admissions.

    Both the University's attorneys and the plaintiffs' legal team asked for additional time to complete the pre-trial discovery phase, citing that the discovery of large amounts of information warranted the delay.

    "As the case nears the end of discovery--the period for gathering all the facts and opinions that either side will use to prove its case--it is not unsusual to have a status conference with the judge to see if the original schedule still makes sense," explained Julie Peterson, director of News and Information Services.

    The lawsuit against LS&A is scheduled for September or October. The Law School suit is scheduled for late August.

    (Adapted from The Michigan Daily, Feb. 22, 1999.)