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Study: Economic Diversity Not a Substitute for Racially Diverse Student Body

Brandon Wolfe

by Ronald Roach
Diverse Students
With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to determine the legality of race-conscious admissions in higher education, a peer-reviewed study published this month in a leading education research journal contends that, while socioeconomic and racial diversity contribute to a positive racial climate on campus, socioeconomic diversity is not a substitute for racial diversity.

In “Does Socioeconomic Diversity Make a Difference? Examining the Effects of Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity on the Campus Climate for Diversity,” published in the American Educational Research Journal, the authors reject the notion that class-based affirmative action alone will bring about a full range of diversity-related educational benefits to college campuses. Instead, lead author Julie J. Park, an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland (UMD), says that, on its own, socioeconomic status falls short as a back-door way to diversity.

“Social class and race not only affect who goes to college, but what actually happens to students once they begin the journey of learning together,” says Park. “Class matters, not only because we need to broaden access to universities, but because of how it makes universities better equipped to support racial diversity.”


When Park began working with co-authors Dr. Nida Denson of University of Western Kentucky and Dr. Nicholas A. Bowman of Bowling Green University in 2009 on the research that would become the basis for their published study, she did not anticipate the U.S. Supreme Court would be close to deciding the Fisher v. Texas affirmative action case. The study’s intent from the outset was to explore how socioeconomic diversity contributed to the campus social and educational climate, she explains.

“I hope the contribution the study makes is to help people understand not just why we need both but how the two influence each other,” says Park. “[It is] how having a more socioeconomically and more racially diverse student body can positively influence race relations on campus.”

“Readers can see our analysis clearly shows that, while there are some benefits to class diversity, we see direct and independent discrete benefits tied to racial diversity,” Park adds.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Virginia-based advocacy organization that opposes race-conscious affirmative action, says it’s disputed as to how much, if any, educational benefit there is in having a racially-diverse campus.

Clegg adds that the Park-led study, which takes issue with a 2009 statement attributed to him about class-based affirmative action, neglects to mention the costs of race-conscious affirmative action. There are costs with using racial preferences in college admissions, he argues.

“This is another study saying there are benefits [with racial diversity on campus], but there’s nothing new with that,” says Clegg.

“Even if it’s true that there’s some marginal value, some marginal educational benefit in using race in deciding who gets in, that has to be weighed against all of the costs and this study does not address those costs,” Clegg explains. “And I say that not to criticize the study because I don’t think it was the intent of the study to do anything but measure what it set out to measure.”

The new study is among the most recent in Park’s research, which emphasizes diversity in higher education. In addition to the study, Park has a book being published this month, “When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education.” The book explores the impact in California of Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action statewide.