How university diversity rationales inform student preferences and outcomes

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43 Scopus citations


It is currently commonplace for institutions of higher education to proclaim to embrace diversity and inclusion. Though there are numerous rationales available for doing so, US Supreme Court decisions have consistently favored rationales which assert that diversity provides compelling educational benefits and is thus instrumentally useful. Our research is a quantitative/experimental effort to examine how such instrumental rationales comport with the preferences of White and Black Americans, specifically contrasting them with previously dominant moral rationales that embrace diversity as a matter of intrinsic values (e.g., justice). Furthermore, we investigate the prevalence of instrumental diversity rationales in the American higher education landscape and the degree to which they correspond with educational outcomes. Across six experiments, we showed that instrumental rationales correspond to the preferences of White (but not Black) Americans, and both parents and admissions staff expect Black students to fare worse at universities that endorse them. We coded university websites and surveyed admissions staff to determine that, nevertheless, instrumental diversity rationales are more prevalent than moral ones are and that they are indeed associated with increasing White-Black graduation disparities, particularly among universities with low levels of moral rationale use. These findings indicate that the most common rationale for supporting diversity in American higher education accords with the preferences of, and better relative outcomes for, White Americans over low-status racial minorities. The rationales behind universities' embrace of diversity have nonlegal consequences that should be considered in institutional decision making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number16
StatePublished - Apr 20 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Diversity
  • Education
  • Inequality
  • Instrumentality
  • Morality


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