Around the globe the pressure to raise college completion levels is growing. Many political and business leaders recognize that prosperity, within a rapidly changing global economy, requires more knowledgeable workers: Today’s employers expect workers to be, among other things, critical thinkers, effective communicators, ethical decision-makers and effective team members.
Given these realities, the educational community faces significant challenges–and opportunities–in ensuring that all students are equipped with the skills that are vital to America’s long-term economic success.
Who are these current students? Are they ready to become future workers? Are we ready for them? Current demographic trends show that today’s workforce is more diverse than in previous decades. In years to come large proportions of Americans entering the workforce will come from low-income and racial/ethnic minority groups that have been the least well served by our schooling systems and, correspondingly, that have the lowest rates of high school and college completion. According to the U.S. Census, by 2050 racial/ethnic minorities will comprise 55% of the working-age population, with Latinos at 30%, African-Americans at 12% and Asian-Americans at 8%. These rates reflect a sizable increase for Latinos (by 100%) and Asian-Americans (by 33%) over current statistics.
To ensure that all workers have the skills to succeed in the workplace, our nation’s leaders, as well as leaders of our higher education institutions, recognize the importance of promoting diverse learning environments–not for the sake of diversity itself but precisely because of the economic (and educational) benefits that flow from learning that takes place in a diverse setting.
Within the higher education community, the term “diversity” often reflects the array of student backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and characteristics that add to the mix of college campuses. Research has confirmed numerous benefits associated with a diverse learning environment. Diversity enhances the educational experience, fostering students’ academic and social growth. It encourages students to think critically, enhances communication skills and fosters civic engagement.
Diversity also strengthens the workforce and enhances America’s economic competitiveness. In a landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving University of Michigan diversity policies, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed that the benefits of diversity to education and the workforce “are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”
Likewise, business leaders have sung the benefits of diversity for the workforce. In an amicus brief filed during the University of Michigan case, General Motors stated that “to succeed in this increasingly diverse environment, American businesses must select leaders who possess cross-cultural competence–the capacities to interact with and to understand the experiences of, and multiplicity of perspectives held by, persons of different races, ethnicities, and cultural histories.”
Education within diverse learning environments prepares students to become good citizens and good workers in a fast-paced, globally interconnected world. Achieving diversity on college campuses and in the workforce does not require quotas, preferences, set-asides or the inclusion of unqualified applications, as some claim. Achieving diversity leads to an increase in our nation’s human capital, thereby promoting a stronger workforce and more engaged citizenry.
The challenge we face is to ensure that awareness about the power of diversity is matched by action. The effective development of our nation’s human capital will require that the higher education community ensure educational opportunity for all and increase the number of racial/ethnic minorities, low-income students and others with diverse backgrounds and experiences who successfully enter and complete college.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), an independent nonprofit organization that is dedicated to increasing access and success in postsecondary education around the world. Arthur L. “Art” Coleman is a managing partner and co-founder of EducationCounsel LLC, and member of the IHEP Board of Directors.