The Opportunity Gap
Campus diversity and the new economy
IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, electronic mail messages can flash from Tokyo to
New York in seconds, hundreds of millions of people around the world can watch the
same newscast, and political uncertainty in Russia can send markets tumbling from
Kuala Lumpur to Kansas City. Disney's message -- It's a small world after all --
was never more on target.
And the United States has never been more diverse. At a single public high school
in Annandale, Virginia, for example, there are 2,200 students speaking 34 different
languages from 72 countries. Even the fictional "Betty Crocker" has been
updated. The "new Betty" is dark-haired, dark-eyed and olive-skinned to
reflect the composite American woman of today.
In response to the growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian and other minorities in America,
along with the growing numbers of children born to people in mixed-race marriages,
This year's census is allowing respondents to identify themselves as being a member
of one or more racial/ethnic groups.
The emergence of a truly global marketplace and the increasing diversity of the U.S.
population are having a tremendous effect on the economy.
Growing diversity at home and abroad has affected hiring patterns. Many, if not most,
U.S. companies quietly use affirmative action hiring policies -- some because they
recognize that it makes them more effective, creative and flexible; some because
they believe in it; some as a defense against possible lawsuits; and others because
they have federal contracts and must reach certain hiring targets.
Whatever the reasons for seeking a diverse workforce, studies show that these policies
help to improve companies' hiring and internal evaluation policies. The result? The
hiring of better candidates from all backgrounds -- a far cry from the preferential
treatment often associated with affirmative action.
Fundamental changes in technology and the structure of the economy have increased
both the volume and the value of interaction among diverse workers on the job. As
interaction among diverse workers and customers intensifies, the failure to value
diversity risks conflict and organizational failure. Employers and employees need
to value diversity in the new economy not only to avoid conflict and failure but
also to ensure success as well.
As Americans, we start out with some clear advantages and disadvantages. Our advantage
is that we are the world's most diverse student body and workforce. But, at the same
time, we must contend with the negative baggage of our historical bigotry and the
tension that arises from our current racial and ethnic inequalities. The reality
of American diversity presents us with a choice: We can ignore our differences and
live with the economic and social costs that follow, or we can learn to value our
diversity and turn it into a true American advantage in the new economy.
One thing is sure: If we are going to have diverse workers, we will need diverse
campuses first. Already, almost 60 percent of American workers have at least some
college, and that number will grow as on-the-job skill requirements increase. Tomorrow's
workers come from today's colleges, and the best way to ensure diversity in the workplace
is to increase diversity on the campus.
But the current diversity on U.S. campuses falls short of the diversity we need in
our workplaces. Minorities still are underrepresented in higher education. The share
of minorities among college students should at least equal their share of the 18-
to 24-year-old college-age population. By that measure, there are currently 200,000
African Americans and 430,000 Hispanics missing on today's college campuses.
As time passes, the opportunity gap in minority education is likely to widen because
our educational policies will not provide sufficient support. Decades, even generations,
of equal opportunity in elementary and secondary education will be required to produce
equal educational outcomes in postsecondary education. In the meantime, only affirmative
action can ensure that those occupying the most elite positions in our society mirror
the racial and cultural composition of the United States.
But affirmative action policies for the most selective institutions will not be enough.
Affirmative outreach by non-elite colleges and universities also is necessary if
there is to be diversity in the vast array of American workplaces.
Beyond the most selective schools, the key to increasing minority enrollment is affirmative
development (improving minority achievement and attainment in elementary and secondary
education) and affirmative outreach (doing a better job of getting qualified minorities
to apply and enroll in the first place and, once enrolled, to provide the necessary
financial, academic, and social support to ensure graduation and access to graduate
The Economic Promise of Diversity
Despite the current strength of the U.S. economy, some 41 percent of African Americans
and 33 percent of Hispanics live in households with incomes below the "minimum
but adequate" level set by the U.S. Department of Labor.
How can this be, in an economy with more good jobs than it can fill? We are not becoming
a nation of hamburger flippers as many fear. High-skilled, services-oriented positions,
such as office, teaching and health care jobs are the fastest-growing sectors in
the economy. But they require college degrees.
In 1995, more than 62 percent of both men and women in the economy's most elite jobs
(managerial and professional jobs paying men more than $59,000 and women more than
$34,000) had bachelor's degrees, and another 23 percent had associate degrees or
some college. By contrast, few elite job holders (only 14 percent) had not gone beyond
high school. Moreover, more than one-half of those holding good jobs (industrial
supervising, crafts and clerical jobs paying men more than $35,800 and women more
than $21,400 a year) had at least some college.
But imagine if the African American and Hispanic communities had the same distribution
of college education as the white community. We would fill more of those college
jobs that may otherwise go begging, go to underskilled American workers, or go to
The difference in national wealth that would result from this infusion of human capital
would be startling. And higher incomes would substantially raise the standard of
living of minority families and increase the quality of their lives in countless
ways that cannot be measured.
The Value of Diversity in the Workplace
Structural changes in the economy suggest that more U.S. workers will need to learn
to value diversity during their college years if they are to be successful on the
job. The growing need to interact successfully in diverse groups is deeply rooted
in a complex web of profound occupational shifts, the movement toward team-based
organizational formats, new competitive requirements, and technological changes at
American workers have largely replaced their hard hats with briefcases. Today's U.S.
economy, once defined by industrial might, is now driven by high-skilled services.
While office jobs and jobs in education and health care are growing, factory jobs
are declining. Today, the U.S. economy is more a high-wage high-skilled services
provider than a goods producer.
Diversity affects performance in this new economy in crucial ways. Because people
of different backgrounds and cultures approach things differently, a diverse workforce
increases the probability of innovation. Diversity also forces team members to remain
flexible and open-minded.
Including diverse staff members in brainstorming sessions can send the conversation
in directions it may never have taken before. "The very nature of the discussion
is different when one of us is in the room," said former Illinois Senator Carol
Moseley-Braun, an African American, describing her experience in the predominantly
white, male U.S. Senate.
An extensive body of research by Charlan Nemeth testifies to the flexible capabilities
of diverse work teams. Nemeth's work finds that the mere presence of a minority viewpoint,
even when the minority view is proven suboptimal, stimulates creativity among other
group members. Research also suggests that diverse groups make better decisions because
they have a broader base of experience from which to draw.
The global economy is ubiquitous, and American exports of goods and services have
tripled since 1986. But entering foreign marketplaces can be risky, especially if
companies aren't familiar with a country's culture, values or business practices.
For this reason, having a diverse workforce can help give U.S. companies a competitive
edge in the global economy.
Cause for Concern: Disturbing Trends and a Cloudy Future
An economy that values diversity and increasingly draws its workers from postsecondary
schools puts stresses on education institutions. For the U.S. education system, the
challenge will be to ensure that all students, majority or minority, have access
to higher education and have the opportunity to learn the skills they need to succeed.
This means both providing more access to college for minorities and placing more
focus on critical thinking, reading, writing, public speaking and working as part
of a diverse team. And, in fact, creating a diverse classroom helps develop these
skills naturally. This is not to say that math and science are no longer important,
only that the so-called "liberal arts" skills that have been largely devalued
on college campuses in the 1980s and 1990s also are important.
When looking at efforts to close the gap between the college enrollment of white
and minority students, there is mixed news. The good news is that growing proportions
of African Americans and Hispanics are attending colleges and universities. And the
trend will continue. The combination of rising educational performance and a surging
demographic wave of minority youth will ensure more diverse campuses and, ultimately,
more diverse workplaces.
The bad news is that these successes are found to be more apparent than real. Unless
we increase the proportions of minorities attending college -- the so-called participation
rates -- the gap between the proportion of minority enrollees relative to the minority
share of 18- to 24-year-olds will not change.
In addition, these optimistic educational and demographic trends shouldn't result
in complacency. While minority students are joining the quest for a college degree
in increasing numbers, so are white students. If the recent upward ratcheting of
educational attainment in response to increasing skill requirements on the job continues,
minorities will have to keep running faster just to stay in place.
The race to college will continue. Thus, to ensure they have an equal shot at the
economy's best jobs, and to ensure that employers can create diverse work teams,
especially among their elite workers, minority students must go to college and graduate.
But the social and economic disadvantages they must overcome -- at every step along
the way to a four-year degree -- are greater than those faced by most white students.
In many cases, African American and Hispanic students are academically qualified
to go to a four-year college, but don't go. Or they settle on a two-year program
instead. While there is nothing wrong with going to community colleges -- they provide
access to good jobs, and they are a low cost community-based "on ramp"
to the higher education highway -- too many potential four-year graduates are lost
at the end of two-year programs. Finally, a fair number of minority students who
do enroll in four-year college programs never graduate.
Clearly, there is no one way to reverse the reasons, both cultural and economic,
that many minority students get left behind in their quest for a college degree and
the opportunities it brings. But continuing affirmative action programs, especially
at the country's most selective colleges and universities, is a necessary component
of any strategy. Even with affirmative action, neither African Americans nor Hispanics
get their fair share of seats at the nation's most selective schools.
African Americans and Hispanics represent 12 and 11 percent, respectively, of the
nation's population, but each represents fewer than six percent of students at the
nation's 120 most selective colleges and universities. By way of comparison, whites
and Asians represent 73 and 3.5 percent, respectively, of the nation's population
and have 77 and 11.5 percent, respectively, of the seats at the most selective schools.
True, affirmative action's impact on the diversity of college enrollments is limited
when looking only at the number of minority enrollments at the most selective colleges.
But the fact is that a disproportionate number of America's corporate leaders, lawyers,
doctors and political officials come from these schools. To ensure diversity among
future leaders -- vital to the future of the country -- there must be diversity on
these most selective campuses.
But affirmative action at the nation's most selective schools will not be enough.
If we don't extend affirmative action and outreach beyond these schools, there will
not be a sufficient number of college-level minorities to create diversity, especially
in the crucial managerial and professional jobs, in the vast majority of American
Ultimately, it is going to college -- not just one of the most selective colleges
-- and graduating that matters most for most minorities. Consequently, affirmative
recruiting of minorities for the full range of postsecondary institutions is critical.
If we were successful in giving minorities access to their share of seats in college,
there already would be another 185,000 minorities with bachelor's degrees in America.
And, in a labor market where projections suggest an ongoing increase in the demand
for college-educated workers over the current supply, these new students and graduates
would not be taking jobs away from other college-educated workers.
Recruiting Minorities and Low-Income Students
The current resistance to traditional forms of affirmative action suggests a need
for alternatives. The current dilemma is that the public supports diversity but is
opposed to admissions based solely on minority status. In general, available opinion
data suggest that a large share of Americans are more comfortable with preference
when it is associated with income class rather than race alone.
In response to these public attitudes, many colleges are attempting to identify "strivers"
-- students who have higher grades and score higher on standardized tests than would
be expected based on their less advantaged individual, family, school and academic
characteristics. Strivers are young people who have overcome economic and educational
disadvantages, and who arguably should receive preference in admission to the nation's
most selective schools.
This strivers approach to admissions, if supported by further research, could engender
greater public support than traditional affirmative action because it rewards students
who exemplify the American dream-beating the odds through hard work and perseverance.
Both two- and four-year schools need to reach out for minority students. Affirmative
outreach policies also are needed to ensure that minorities who go to college actually
graduate. Among 25- to 29-year-olds who went to college, half of whites graduated,
compared to fewer than a third of African Americans and Hispanics.
For all these students, across the broad range of American schools, we will need
more pervasive and subtle forms of affirmative development and affirmative support
beyond those discussed in the current debate over "preferences."
Achieving economic equality among the nation's diverse populations is not just a
"nice" social or political goal. It is a necessity -- for both social and
economic reasons -- that must be conveyed to elected leaders and the public.
To achieve workplace diversity, more must be done by education institutions at every
level to ensure that qualified minority students are entering college. What's more,
these students must finish four-year college programs -- including those offered
by the country's most elite schools -- if they are to succeed.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we have a pretty good idea about the economy
that lies across the threshold. Our diversity is a unique advantage. To maintain
our competitive edge we will need employees who are increasingly creative and agile.
To meet that need, we must have diverse workers with the education to match.
Anthony P. Carnevale is vice president for public leadership, Educational Testing
Service. This article was adapted from a paper delivered at an American Council on
Education symposium on diversity and affirmative action.
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