Sunday, May 25, 2008

Diversity in Education

From the Chicago Tribune this morning:

College recruiters trying to reach the most promising applicants can purchase customized mailing lists based on where students live, their grades and test scores, even their ethnicity and religion.

One category, however, has been off-limits since the early 1980s: family income...But now, as some of the nation's most elite colleges are trying to bring more economic diversity to their overwhelmingly affluent student bodies, admissions officers who want to lure low-income students to campus are pushing to get that data

My gut reaction to this was something along the lines of:

"Goddam incompetent government. They are deliberately targeting people who can't pay?! I wonder how much money this is going to cost..."

I was a libertarian for the last few years. So the institutions are mostly private. Sue me, I like to blame government for everything.

Despite my and possibly your knee-jerk opposition to hand-outs (even if they aren't always government hand-outs), there's sound reason to make sure your student body has a good number of low-income students...or, rather, diverse in general.

Any college education worth its salt teaches students how to problem-solve and think for themselves. One of the major issues humans have, though, is the proliferation of heuristics and blind-spots we have. The mind operates a bit like an old accountant that runs the same equations over and over again. There might be new, better ways to do things out there, but he is loathe to adopt new techniques: He likes to do things the traditional way.

Heuristics are the rules of thumb that we use to problem-solve. For instance, when someone asks me if something enhances social welfare, the first thing I do is consider supply and demand, and it makes it proxy a perfectly competitive market better, then it improves social welfare. Some guys think that any woman with a tattoo on the lower back is a bit "easier" than the average woman. Same basic principle.

What diversity at an institution does is present different viewpoints and new sets of information. The danger of just having a bunch of white, rich, suburban children in the same institution is that they all tend to face similar problems. Oh, sure, they might have differing political views. I doubt, though, that they will understand the jealousy a young african-american woman may experience when she looks at the extravagant hair of a Caucasian woman. I highly doubt many of those students will understand the obsession that small Japanese retail shops have with new products. 

Without a different viewpoint and a different set of cultural experiences to draw upon, a student's understanding of different market-places is impaired. More to the point, a student may miss out on different methods of problem-solving that other cultures may posses. 

Hence, diversity is a benefit to any institution.

By the way, the University of Illinois at Chicago is considered the 5th most ethnically diverse campus in the country.

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