As every high-school senior knows, many colleges and universities take “racial diversity” into account when selecting students for admission. The practice is controversial, because it could mean that qualified students are denied admission, and those who are admitted must tolerate other students with a less rigorous academic background. The institutions often argue that their admissions practices are justified because increased diversity creates a more effective learning environment.
There is some research backing these claims: schools with greater racial diversity tend to have better retention, satisfaction, and intellectual development. However, most of the data is correlational—it’s unclear whether diversity caused the positive results, or vice versa. A team of researchers led by Anthony Lising Antonio developed an experimental study to see if they could find a causal link between racial diversity and student achievement (see comments for the full citation).
They placed white student volunteers into groups based on a preliminary survey about their opinions on controversial issues. Students were placed in groups with others they agreed with. However, in each group, in addition to the three naive volunteers, there was also a “confederate”—a student who followed a script that either agreed with or contradicted the professed opinions of the others in the group. Half of the confederates were Black.
Before the groups met, each participant wrote an essay for 15 minutes on their pre-screened social issue (either child labor in developing countries or the death penalty). Then they met with their discussion group to discuss the issue. Then the participants wrote another essay on the same topic. Finally, they wrote a third essay on the topic that their group had not discussed.
Unfortunately the results of the study will probably do little to diminish the controversy over racial diversity in college admissions. The essays were rated by a panel of three judges for “integrative complexity” (IC), which is a measure of how well the essay incorporates multiple perspectives and is associated with higher achievement in college students. The post-discussion essays had significantly higher ICs when the confederate disagreed with the other members of the group, but not when the confederate was simply of a different race.
However, when students wrote on child labor for the third essay (meaning the group had been discussing capital punishment), then white students in groups with Black confederates wrote essays with higher ICs compared to those in groups with white confederates. Though the same result was not found when the third topic was the death penalty, this result does suggest that in some instances, the mere fact of racial diversity in a group can lead to improved writing.
By far the researchers’ most significant finding was one that simply matched previous research: students who had a more racially diverse group of friends and classmates outside of the study tended to write essays with higher ICs. Again, however, this finding is only a correlation, and cannot on its own show that racial diversity improves learning. Although this study is a good start, perhaps a study that provides participants more than an hour or so interaction with members of a different race will give a more definitive answer.