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Rethinking Diversity: The Millennial Student Project

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Excerpts from the second day Keynote Address

Speakers: Lynette Cook Francis, Assistant Vice President for Multicultural Affairs and Student Success, University of Arizona

Melissa Ousley, Research Analyst, Multicultural Affairs and Student Success, University of Arizona

First, a little background.

We have done three studies to date: The first, in 2002, examined approaches to diversity on college campuses. It was a qualitative national study in which we interviewed practitioners in multicultural affairs at fouryear colleges and universities. The second, in 2005, was more local– a qualitative and quantitative survey of our entire UA campus. Third, the phase we are still working on, is a longitudinal study that will follow a group of nearly 500 freshmen through their entire college experience. Our goal is to produce a documentary about this, based on a smaller subset of that group. This involves considerable interviewing and, as we are a predominantly white university, oversampling of students of color to gain a proper representation of different voices.

Diversity Then and Now

Our study is concerned with how students today view diversity and multiculturalism. This is an area that we, in higher education, spend a lot of time thinking about, but perhaps not always in terms of the needs of today’s students. At the University of Arizona, and across much of the country, many of our diversity programs were created in the post Civil Rights era, and many of them remain the same these 30 or 40 years later. So it is time to ask ourselves if we are thinking about diversity that way that our students are thinking about it.

The first focus of those original diversity programs was on how do we get students onto our campuses, where, for many of them, there had been no previous access. You have heard the phrase “cultural deficit, cultural depravation,” the idea that students of color coming to campuses lacked some basic cultural knowledge that would help them be successful. So these original programs were primarily for minority students to help them adjust culturally, and might include cultural centers, bridge programs, recruitment, financial aid. Because a campus might be seen as a hostile environment for minority students, it was necessary to create cultural centers and minority affairs offices where these students could go and take care of things.

Today, demographics in the continental U.S. numbers are shifting dramatically, and the numbers regarding students in higher education are changing as well. Latino students have experienced the greatest change, with a 75 percent increase. The number of AsianAmerican students is up 53 percent, AfricanAmericans up 36 percent, Native Americans up 35 percent, and Caucasians down 4.6, all of which reflect a general trend in the population. But we are talking not only about demographics. We are addressing how people are classifying themselves.

When you look at the 1990 census, there were eight racial categories. By the 2000 census there were 34. Students, in particular, are much more resistant to being classified in traditional categories. For instance, in our study we found 10% identifying themselves as bi or multiracial. That was the fourth largest group, after Caucasian, Latino, and Asian. The number of students who do not identify themselves with a single group has grown significantly.

A new category – “unknown” – now stands at 5.5 percent and growing. This has significance for us. Tiger Woods may have heralded this when he called himself “Cablasian,” Caucasian, Black, and Asian. He is an example of the kind of student we are seeing, one that doesn’t fit into a particular box.

This trend is mirrored in popular culture, which is always a major influence on students. Think about the generational differences: In the late 60s “Star Trek” was a big deal on television, and one episode contained the first interracial kiss on TV. The only way they got away with it was to have the characters under the influence of hostile aliens, and forced to kiss. Think of that in terms of where students are now. Look at the diversity of media here, almost as if it’s unnoticeable. “Lost,” for example, is on the edge of colorblind casting. And look at “Will and Grace.” Students are influenced by shows that intentionally give them a broader view.

Industry is another major influence. How industry defines diversity is important. For example, General Motors’ mission statement defines diversity by age, family status, religion, sexual orientation, level of education, physical abilities, military status, union representation, and so forth. Industry has broadened its definition of diversity, so it expects our students and the things we teach them to reflect this.

Another trend that influences the millennial student are challenges to affirmative action. Two years ago, in response to the University of Michigan decision, our university attorneys decided we should not have any more racebased programs, such as our New Start Program, a summer bridge program that had been established for minorities. So we took away any kind of racial requirement for that. This is happening across the country. Yet when we removed the racebased requirement, the program’s demographics didn’t really change. The program’s reputation as minority-serving seems to have impacted student enrollment.

Questions and Answers
For “The Millennial Project” we asked the following kinds of questions: What are the millennial students’ perceptions and attitudes in regard to diversity? How did their perceptions and attitudes compare across traditional measures? What elements do millennial students ascribe to diversity? In other words, when we ask them about diversity, what are they thinking about?

One thing to consider when we talk about diversity is that it is such a politically charged topic. People have a lot of different opinions. The students who chose to answer our survey and who are a part of this project may be different from those who chose not to answer.

It is interesting that many of our participating students are female, reflecting the trend of increasing numbers of women in universities. Also, if you look at some of the research regarding diversity you find that females tend to be more open and more likely to answer surveys like this.

We also have a lot of first generation students, and they tend to be ethnic minorities.

We ask students to identify themselves. A lot of times, in admissions, we give them five to 10 choices, depending on the institution. We are finding it is more complex than that. So we say ‘Okay, we’re going to do a more openended question, then recode it so we can do the analysis.’ It’s really complicated.

Students sometimes are resistant, so they may answer, “human,” “tan,” or” pink” or whatever they decide to say. Some said “humanist.” Some said “human species.” There were some bizarre answers! Many Caucasian students mentioned feeling like they didn’t have a culture, like they should reconnect with their roots. So we’ll see some say a quarter English, a quarter Scotch, that sort of thing. Sometimes we see our Caucasian students declining to disclose, and that’s a national trend.

One theory is that this may represent a kind of backlash, that they feel they’ll penalized for revealing their ethnicity.

Influences are very interesting. The most frequent answers we had regarding influences (and the answers were diverse) were education, friends and peers, parents, media, and travel. There were many more, of course, but these were the most frequent ones.

Many students talk about diverse friendships. They don’t necessarily notice ethnicity so much. This generation is so postmodern in the sense that everybody and everything is so diverse. We had one student speaking to a member of our staff, who is a baby boomer, and our staffer kept asking, “What about ethnicity?” Of course those of us who work in higher education are very sensitive to these issues. So she was trying to get at social justice, and so forth, and it just wasn’t part of this student’s thinking. She said diversity is anything and everything. It was a totally different plane.

It is interesting, too, that the majority of our students have had friends of other races, genders, and religions. As to sexual orientation, not as many. Maybe this is partly exposure, partly stigma. The GLBTQ populations are still under fire. Female students are more open, while heterosexual males are more closed. Humor and entertainment are the last ways in which people release their tensions.

Further, they expect to see diversity in college. From leadership down to the residence halls, this is an expectation students are coming in with.

Ethnicity: Factor or Not?
We are working with a model that looks at the levels of students openness and depth of knowledge. While similar models that have looked at such issues for students have been linear, we are seeing their identity and perception as being very fluid, as being something that can change. While depth of knowledge is linear, your level of openness, depending on the situations you encounter, who you interact with, and how you interpret those interactions can change you can become more open or less open. Many students responded that we shouldn’t talk about ethnicity or gender. We should judge people on the basis of their skills. We call this meritocratic, because we saw that many students talk about merit. One said, “I define diversity as a measure of the difference among people’s past life experiences. Specifically, I do not consider a black person diverse from a white person if they both grew up in a wealthy suburb with loving parents and easy overall life, despite their superficial racial difference.” So for many students, social economics and resources are more at issue than ethnicity.

Sometimes students talk about diversity as a good thing but also as something that divides people, marginalizes or separates people. Even stigmatizes them. One of our students said, “While appreciating and recognizing cultural heritage and differences is an admirable goal, I feel that it creates more divisions than it breaks down. Diversity inherently segments the population, and segmentation leads to hatred and bigotry.”

We saw this in a lot of our responses, where students talked about diversity as being contrived, or wonderful as long as it was not forced on anyone. That idea of force came up a lot. I don’t think students really understand what affirmative action is. As we looked at the comments and data, I think there is a real disconnect. They have ideas about it but don’t really understand it. Similarly, if the majority of our students define diversity as anything and everything, their understanding may be a mile wide but an inch deep.

Yet if we get at issues of social justice or power and privilege, then students really start to think critically and with greater complexity. One said, “Diversity is a mixture of the physical and cultural characteristics that combine to distinguish individuals. Diversity is responsible for cultural differences and distinct ways of living. It is important that people are different to provide a constant supply of challenging ideas. Without differences there is no basis of comparison, and people are displeased at their homogeneous ways of thinking. Diversity supplies unfamiliarity that causes people to stretch beyond their own ways of thinking. “

Even though this is not fully a social justice perspective, I think it is the beginning of it. The more diverse your college experiences, the better prepared you will be for a globalized society. You’ll do better in school, so there are advantages to diverse experiences in and out of class.

Preliminary Conclusions

This is a four to six year study, so we’re just looking at early conclusions. You can follow our progress at

First of all, millennial students are accustomed to diversity, and they expect their college environments to be diverse. You will see a diversity ranking now in US News & World Report surveys, because diversity is considered part of an excellent education. Students define diversity broadly and express multiple identities extending well beyond the traditional race and ethnicity.

Students’ desire to commit to identity-based programming may be specific to generational status or history of the identity group. We cannot say that all students do or do not want this. Third generation AfricanAmerican college students, for example, may have no interest in diversity or ethnicbased programming. On the other hand, at the University of Arizona, where we have many firstgeneration Hispanic students, they may look for this kind of programming. And where GLBT programming had little presence decades ago, we now see a real need for it even as we see a decrease in interest from some of the ethnicities. And while support services to individual groups are looked upon favorably by students to varying degrees, they say we don’t want the services forced on us.

Finally, the implications for us as educators and administrators are clear: It is time for us to rethink what we’re doing. Students are getting exposure to diversity early, and while we may sponsor salsa dances or Asian food nights, they are well beyond that. They get those things in second and third grade.

So where should a university be leading students? It depends on your campus and your population.

We need to talk about generational differences in how we see diversity among our faculty and staff. These students are not thinking about the Civil Rights movement or the feminist movement. While all the goals of those movements have not been accomplished, some of them have. What we wanted was that students would come to campus and not be thinking about some of these things so much. One student described it, when we asked him about diversity, he said, “You know, I don’t think about it until you ask me about it. I live it every day. It’s like the air.”

So we need to remember that they are not thinking about these things in the same way that we may be. They relate to multiple identities; they are in constant flux. In different environments they think of themselves in different ways. They move through these identities without problems. Maybe we should be creating more opportunities to talk about social justice issues, because students don’t understand what affirmative action is or the power issues behind diversity.

The biggest challenge to diversity on college campuses is not about affirmative action, it’s the cost of education. We have to make sure that we’re not asleep at the wheel while we fight affirmative action fights. We have to make sure that people can afford to go to college. That is the real threat to diversity on college campuses.

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