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"Rewarding Students by Nudging Adults,"

by Jenice L. View March/April 2008 issue of Poverty & Race

Professors Chambers, Boger and Tobin propose the fascinating idea that colleges and universities can promote K‑12 racial/ethnic diversity by privileging those college applicants who demonstrate significant amounts of “diversity capital”—life experiences, behaviors and perspectives gained from attending a high‑performing, inclusive, diverse secondary school. This is a noble goal, given the recent legal and political reversals that create a greater number of segregated public schools. We have come to understand that enforced racial isolation does not serve our children well in a world where global consciousness is a highly valued commodity.

The authors concede that the concept of diversity capital requires refinement. Indeed, the core idea assumes that schools with a high degree of racial/ethnic diversity will offer experiences and conditions that generate diversity capital among students. However, racial/ethnic integration in a school (let’s say one with at least 30‑40% students of color) is only as good as the educational opportunities offered to all students within the high‑performing, inclusive school. But we need to ask: Is there academic tracking? What is the proportional representation of students of color and poor students in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and honors courses? What is the rate of suspension/expulsion of students of color? Are student athletes expected to perform at a high academic level? If the secondary schools can claim that there is diversity in their body count but the social pyramid replicates the inequities of the larger society, then it is questionable whether students will accrue diversity capital simply by breathing the air.

The authors indicate that “at present few white students who apply to our selective colleges and universities attend diverse high schools.” So, too, for students of color. As stated at the outset of their article, increasing numbers of students of color attend schools that are 90‑100% minority. So, those students would not be credited with diversity capital. A more likely scenario is that students of color at “diverse schools” are in the numeric minority at predominantly white schools. Yet, this does not equate to having experienced an “inclusive school.” The experiences of these students may be sufficiently negative that they would bring to college anxieties (or “liabilities”) that are contrary to the concept of diversity capital. Viewed from another angle, the diversity capital that a successful and eager student of color brings to college—having been a numeric minority in a predominantly white school—may be very similar to the characteristics and perspectives that currently make such students attractive to selective colleges and universities. In other words, there might not be a net gain in the number of students of color with diversity capital.

The white student with genuine diversity capital (as opposed to the student whose family vacation to Latin America is presented as cultural exchange/community service/diversity awareness) might demonstrate school‑based experiences as an anti‑racist ally with people of color. This is very different from saying, “Some of my best friends from high school are.” Let’s assume that such exemplary secondary schools exist where students can gain this experience and perspective. Are they more likely to be in urban areas on the east and west coasts? If so, there may be implications for geographic diversity in current college admissions.

Again, the authors propose a very interesting idea that may well shape the composition and tenor of college classrooms in 2028. For colleges and universities to take the leadership in rewarding talented students from schools and school districts that invest in racial equity—this can only be regarded as a social good.

Jenice L. View is Assistant Professor in the Initiatives in Educational Transformation Program at George Mason Univ.

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