When it comes to diversity on a college's campus, enrollment percentages and brochures can't tell the whole story. How can prospective students dig deeper?
Courses and Programs
"Check the availability of different classes that reflect diversity, check out the student organizations," says John Kula, director of Penn State University's Upward Bound Program. Look for student-run clubs that interest you listed on the school's Web site.
Peruse a course catalog to make sure the school offers classes and majors that meet your needs. Diverse options within other majors are a sign that an institution values diversity. For instance, is there a course on Hispanic literature or African-American art?
Find a calendar of academic and entertainment events. What sort of speakers does the college invite? Are different cultures and viewpoints represented? Do the music, movie and other entertainment choices meet your expectations?
Many colleges have a diversity or multicultural office. Call and ask what resources they offer. "We bring different student organizations together to talk about issues that affect campus, our country and the world," says Maruxa Faustmann Murphy, assistant director of multicultural affairs at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
"We have a program called Alliance for Change, where current students contact prospective high school students and answer any questions they have [relating to diversity]," Murphy says. "We also give students an opportunity to connect before orientation. They can link up with other upperclassmen who had the same questions when they started out."
Your Campus Visit
Speaking to students on campus is one of the best ways to learn more about a school. During your visit, "ask to speak with other students who are in cultural organizations and ask them about their experience," Murphy says. They have first-hand knowledge about diversity on campus.
Remember, a campus tour guide's main job is to sell you on the college. For a different perspective, keep your eyes and ears open. Talk to students you meet along the way. Ask for their opinions on whether the campus is diverse. Do they feel comfortable? Does the college have an environment where differences are embraced? Do other students seem welcoming and respectful of international students?
At the admissions office, ask whether they have a structured plan to increase diversity. As a prospective student, you'll see first-hand how their recruitment methods work, but be sure to ask about their initiatives to retain minority and international students once enrolled.
A high percentage of different ethnicities on campus doesn't necessarily translate into ethnic harmony. It's difficult to measure something like this on a campus visit that might last only a few hours. What can you check that may indicate the level of interaction between ethnic groups?
Flip through a recent yearbook. Who is represented in organizations not based on any kind of ethnic difference?
Visit the cafeteria. Where are people sitting?
Walk around the dorms. What sort of students do you see?
Read the campus newspaper. Are there stories about diversity issues?
No matter what you see or hear, it's important to keep everything in perspective, says Murphy. "I've talked to students who said, 'I saw a lot of diverse students,' and that made them interested in the college when they visited. But there are also students who visit Rollins, where our campus to them is not as diverse as where they're from." Even if a campus doesn't immediately strike you as being ethnically diverse, you may find that the college is still a good match.
In fact, sometimes diversity of thought is every bit as important as diversity of ethnicity, says Arlene Cash, vice president of enrollment management at Spelman College, a historically black women's college near Atlanta. "Students here are diverse in their political views, they come from different [economic] backgrounds. Every year, students tell me how surprised they are at the amount of diversity there is on our campus."
It can be a challenge to find a campus that meets your expectations of diversity, but the right choice can reward you in many ways. "Diversity should be one of the top five things a student looks at when considering a college," Kula says. "It's important to increase awareness of multiple perspectives; it expands your comprehension and awareness of history."