Encounters With Diversity, on Campuses and in Course Work, Bolster Critical-Thinking Skills

Worries about the quality of undergraduate education tend to be magnified by concerns about the increasing diversity of students entering college.

Many colleges are already struggling to adequately teach students and to document their learning to the public. How well will those institutions be able to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students, who will hail from more-varied racial, ethnic, educational, and economic backgrounds, than today’s?

Four studies that are awaiting publication and were presented here at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education offer reasons for optimism. They find that students’ scores on standardized tests of critical thinking grow when they encounter diversity, either when they come into contact with students from backgrounds that are different from their own or when they take diversity courses. And white students seem to benefit most.

The studies arrive as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin. During past court battles, advocates and foes of affirmative-action programs have cited research to bolster their claims, but the data often relied on student surveys.

“The challenge we’ve had up to this point is we haven’t had enough empirical evidence,” Luis Ponjuan, an associate professor of higher-education administration at Texas A&M University at College Station, said at the meeting. “The work we’re doing today is going to inform the paradigm shift in higher education.”

Several of the new studies are based on a rich pool of data, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. It is a longitudinal study of full-time students who attended four-year colleges representing a cross section of regions, missions, and levels of selectivity. <Read more.>

Via Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Ed.