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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

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The Opportunity Gap
Campus diversity and the new economy

Anthony P. Carnevale  
By Anthony P. Carnevale

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 education).

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 foreign workers.

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 work.

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.

Affirmative Action
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 workplaces.

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.

Photo by Dennis Brack, BlackStar for CrossTalk

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