The Right Coast

November 15, 2005
Does Enrollment Diversity Improve University Education? The Data Suggest Not.
By Gail Heriot

Opinion polls are not always useful. Too many people answer the questions the way they think they are expected to. Doing so is a lot less likely to get them in trouble than answering truthfully or thoughtfully. It's the easy way out.

No one should be surprised, therefore, that when students are directly asked if they believe "diversity" has improved the quality of their education, they frequently answer "yes" even when they actually think "no" or have no particular basis for answering either "yes" or "no." Their teachers have been singing diversity hosannas to them since kindergarten. If the students are remotely well-socialized, they know exactly what answer is desired from them. And they dutifully give it.

The best way to get the truth may therefore be indirection. And that is exactly the strategy employed by my friend Stan Rothman (and his co-authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Neil Nevitte) in their 2002 study entitled, "Does Enrollment Diversity Improve University Education?". Their results, which Stan discussed at the Federalist Society's Lawyers' Conference on Saturday, contradicted the simple opinion polls.

Rather than ask students what they think of diversity, the authors asked students how satisfied they were with their overall university experience on a seven-point scale with 1 meaning "very dissatisfied" and 7 meaning "very satisfied." Students, faculty, and administrators were also asked (1) to rate their institution’s job of educating students as excellent, good, fair or poor; (2) to estimate the proportion of students at their institution who are academically ready prepared to be there-- almost all, most, only some, or almost none; and (3) to rate student work effort on a seven-point scale from "very lazy" to "very hardworking."

Contrary to what the "diversity" model would predict, students tend to be less satisfied with the their overall university experience the more racially diverse the student body. Students, faculty and adminstrators similarly were less impressed with the more "diverse" universities and their students. All this was done controlling for a host of factors concerning the kind and quality of the institution at issue as well as socio-economic and academic factors about the respondents.

Is the Rothman study the final word on the educational value of diversity? Of course not. The study doesn't show (or even purport to show) that diversity in the abstract is valueless. Perhaps it is only valueless when it is achieved through preferential treatment of minority applicants. Moreover, it's difficult to know for sure whether all relevant factors have been controlled for or what's causing what. But the study is a tremendous advance over the simple-minded opinion polls that were presented as "evidence" of diversity's value in the Grutter and Gratz cases two years ago. So far, the serious empirical evidence contradicts the diversity model.