Attending a More Diverse College Could Lead to Higher Earnings, Study Finds

February 20, 2013

The long-held belief that exposure to new ideas or viewpoints in the classroom promotes richer learning experiences and cultural understanding is not new. Over the decades, colleges have worked hard to increase the diversity among their student population for those very reasons. What is new is a study from the The National Bureau of Economic Research suggesting that attending a diverse college may also result in an increased paycheck.

A new working paper, "Estimating Benefits from University-Level Diversity," by Barbara Wolfe of the University of Wisconsin and Jason Fletcher of the Yale School of Public Health, was written with a goal: figuring out just how attending diverse colleges may -- or may not -- benefit students in the long run. They analyzed survey data going back to the subjects' high school and college years, and again at eight years beyond high school graduation. They then looked for possible correlations among campus diversity and future earnings, educational attainment, and even voting behaviors.

The researchers discovered a link between college diversity and earnings, with those attending more diverse institutions earning about $1900 more per year by the eighth year following high school graduation. This reflects about a 5 percent increase in earnings, though it is unclear whether this gap would shrink, persist or grow over time. Wolfe and Fletcher say they did not, however, find a link between college diversity and higher educational attainment or a tendency to vote. Perhaps not so surprising was the finding that exposure to diversity seems to result in a more diverse set of friends as adults (except in the case of Hispanic students, where the opposite tends to occur).

Washington Monthly notes that while the paper's findings are not exactly "mind-blowing," they are significant in that they indicate that diversity may offer long-term benefits, strengthening the case for proponents of affirmative action or other measures designed to increase minority representation on campus. Overall, however, although Wolfe's and Fletcher's findings would seem to make the case for increased diversity on college campuses, the paper offers little guidance on how to achieve it.

Dr. Michael Lynch, an associate professor of education and department chair at Langston University, believes that part of the solution for increasing college diversity in the United States may rest in online education. In a piece he recently penned for Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Lynch notes that the flexibility and convenience of online learning allow working, ill or family-rearing students to attend school when traditional courses are off the table, leading to a student population "with more variety." He also suggests that the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, only adds to the diversity effect because these courses allow students from across the globe to enroll in them, at low or no cost.

"MOOCs will further eliminate the socio-economic barriers that keep promising students from seeking out college credits," writes Lynch. "[MOOCs represent] the next big step for enriching the diversity of the college student population in America."

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"Estimating Benefits from University-Level Diversity,", February 2013, Barbara L. Wolfe, Jason Fletcher

"Diversity at College Level Bolstered by Online Offerings,", February 15, 2013, Dr. Matthew Lynch

"Why Diversity Matters,", February 19, 2013, Daniel Luzer

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