‘How Will You Contribute to Our Diverse Population?’

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College application questions convey institutions’ commitment to diversity and challenge potential students to think about the same 

More and more colleges and universities are asking potential students to begin thinking about diversity and inclusion before they are even enrolled.

College admission questions asking high school and transfer students to describe how they will contribute to the diversity of a campus are appearing more frequently on applications. At some universities, however, such questions have been a staple of the admission process for years — and, at others, even decades.

The University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, for instance, has included such a question since the late 1990s. Students applying for the fall 1999 freshman class were asked to “discuss the most applicable aspects of their background or experience that would enrich the diversity of [the] campus community,” explains Paul Seegert, director of admissions for UW.

The question was one of five topics students were asked to address in their personal essays. As the application was reviewed and updated over the years, the university decided to make the diversity question mandatory.

Frank Key
Frank Key

Located in Orange, Calif., Chapman University’s application has included a diversity-related question for the past two years. “Previous questions generated predictable responses that related to a student’s social activities — information we gathered in other parts of the application,” says Frank Key, assistant director of undergraduate admission for the university. “Now, we receive information that is reflective of the student’s experience and is unique to them.”

Applicants to Chapman are prompted to respond to two questions that are tied to campus initiatives that support the university’s commitment to diversity, Key points out. “We think it is important to let applicants know the school values diversity, and we think it is important to allow them to talk about their identity and their differences.”

North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh has asked applicants to complete a diversity-related short-answer question for 12 years, but it is designed to do more than just elicit information from applicants, says Thomas Griffin, associate vice provost and director of undergraduate admissions. “It is a two-way communication; it is important that we tell applicants that we value diversity of experience and perspective, and it is important to learn how students believe they can add to, or benefit from, a diverse community,” he says.

Thomas Griffin
Thomas Griffin

Evaluating the responses to diversity-related questions is subjective and doesn’t focus on right or wrong answers, Griffin says. “There are a variety of answers, but as we read them, we look to see if the applicant provides insight into [his or her] thought process, or if the answer is thoughtful.”

For example, applicants may attempt to demonstrate how they would benefit from a diverse campus or the diversity they would bring to campus, such as identifying as a woman interested in engineering or a person from the West Coast. “Another example is an applicant who describes himself as a white male growing up in Raleigh who would benefit from getting to meet and become friends with a diverse group of classmates,” he adds.

Seegert admits that academic performance in high school drives most acceptance decisions, but because UW uses a holistic admissions review process, he says the personal character and unique experiences expressed by students in their responses enhance the university’s overall assessment.

Students on Southern Methodist University’s campus in Dallas, Texas
Students on Southern Methodist University’s campus in Dallas, Texas

Byron Lewis, interim dean of admissions at Southern Methodist University (SMU), agrees. “These short answers also show us if SMU is a good fit for the student and how the student might contribute through interactions with diverse students or involvement in clubs, organizations, and community activities.”

Wes Waggoner
Wes Waggoner

Although SMU has included a question about applicants’ ability to contribute to or benefit from a diverse campus community for four years, the real value is in the candid, more transparent responses that a short-answer question elicits, according to Wes Waggoner, associate vice president for enrollment management at the university. “We want to know why students are choosing SMU, and a question that highlights our commitment to diversity pairs well with that overarching question.”

At NCSU, Griffin has noticed a change in applicant answers over the years. “There is less emphasis on discussion of race or ethnic background to illustrate diversity and more on the diverse perspectives people with different backgrounds bring to our community,” he says. “Students have a broader understanding of what diversity means. For example, they might describe their experiences as a liberal Democrat in a Republican stronghold or as a gay person who has come out to his or her family.”

app-sidebarHe also recalls reading an application from a student who described her contribution to campus diversity as a Jewish West Coast resident — both underrepresented groups at NCSU.

At UW, the differences in applicants’ responses reflect a changing applicant pool, Seegert says.
“We receive more out-of-state and international applications than we did several years ago, which means students naturally have different experiences,” he says. “We are also seeing more applicants describing themselves as first-generation college students who represent first- or second-generation immigrants, which is a reflection of more diverse high schools and a greater emphasis on pursuing a college education.”

The combination of campus initiatives to attract and support a diverse population, along with the message conveyed by the application question, is having an effect on freshman class profiles. “At UW, almost 30 percent of the 2016-2017 class represents first-generation college students, and a little more than 14 percent of students are from underrepresented groups that include African American, American Indian, Hispanic and Latino, and Hawaiian or Pacific Islander,” says Seegert.

At Chapman, the diversity question, along with university initiatives, has resulted in a 4 percent increase in students of color in the 2015-2016 freshman class, according to Key. “The question, the information it elicits, and ongoing initiatives at Chapman tie together to make the school more accessible to a diverse population,” he says. “The question alone will not attract students from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”

SMU is also experiencing a spike in applications from underrepresented groups. According to Waggoner, 26.7 percent of the fall 2016 entering class is from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds — a near record for the university. However, like Key, he doesn’t overestimate the impact of the application question.

“We’ve certainly seen an increase in applicants and admitted students since the introduction of the question, but other recruitment initiatives between 2010 and 2014 had a larger impact,” he says. “Still, the question about diversity is an important tool in helping SMU understand a student’s story and in sharing the university’s own commitment to diversity.”●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.