The University Record, June 5, 2000

Joint study to examine link between diversity, learning

By Joel Seguine
News and Information Services

Higher education plays a central role in preparing students to live and work in a society where one out of three Americans will be a member of a racial/ethnic minority and most of the growth in new jobs will require a college degree. What new skills do students need to become engaged citizens in the future?

To find out, the U-M and nine other public research universities are working together to explore how diversity is linked with learning on college campuses and to share promising practices that enhance their goal of preparing students for engagement in a diverse society.

“Preparing College Students for a Diverse Democracy,” launched April 7 at Arizona State University, also includes the University of California, Los Angeles; University of Maryland; University of Massachusetts-Amherst; University of Minnesota; University of New Mexico; Texas Southern University; University of Washington; and University of Vermont.

The main goal of the project is to understand how different campuses achieve goals for student learning and address the skills needed for participation in a democracy through initiatives designed to increase student engagement with diverse perspectives.

According to Sylvia Hurtado, associate professor of education and the project’s principal investigator, colleges have developed a wide range of initiatives that include such practices as community service learning programs, facilitated intergroup dialogues and a variety of curricular initiatives. “However, we have yet to understand how students develop cognitive, social and democratic skills through campus initiatives and informal interactions with diverse peers during their college experience,” Hurtado says.

“We will use different methods to collect information including a longitudinal survey of students that will track their college experience, several focused classroom-based studies and student focus groups. We expect that each campus will be able to utilize student data in future planning activities and share promising practices that may serve as a model for other institutions across the country.”

Hurtado says the project is a significant attempt to bring empirical evidence to inform the practice of educating a diverse student body. “It intends to move beyond the current affirmative action controversy to provide action and discussion about the types of education that will be necessary for citizenship in a diverse society with a common destiny. Timed to coincide with the national elections, we have a unique opportunity to learn about student orientations regarding self-interest or public interest, their conceptions of democracy, and engagement in formal democratic processes. Institutions are searching for a new vision and are eager to acquire research and theory that can guide practice.

“Therefore” Hurtado adds, “this project is important in revitalizing higher education’s mission to prepare a diverse student body for future democratic citizenship.” The project is endorsed by the American Association for Higher Education, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the American Council on Education. It is funded with a three-year grant of $872,000 from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

For further information, contact the Diverse Democracy Project, (734) 647-7439; 610 East University Ave., 2022M SEB 1259; or divdemo@umich.edu.