Going to college is an important rite of passage for many. In addition to providing young adults with a transitional environment as they leave home and teaching them life skills, a college degree offers career preparation and new opportunities. Today, it’s hard to get a job offering growth potential without a college degree.
Unfortunately, college isn’t accessible to everyone, and those who do go on to higher education often find that it isn’t a universally positive experience. Although campuses have become more diverse and welcoming for students in the last few years, diversity among faculty members is still extremely low. According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of professors and just 24% of all faculty were non-white in 2017.
While it’s good news to see that college student diversity is on the rise, it’s also important to acknowledge and address the diversity gap among faculty members. Here’s why it makes a difference.
Professors Choose Their Curriculum
Unlike in grade school or high school, professors have much more freedom when it comes to choosing their own curriculum. They design the course, assign the books, and guide the discussions. While there are certain expectations based on the type of course, an individual professor has a lot of freedom in how they want to guide the learning process.
While this is what makes higher education unique and valuable, a lack of diversity within an institution’s teaching staff can result in a lack of diversity within its curriculums and courses. A female, Asian professor is likely to choose very different texts than a white, male professor in a literature course, for instance. Exposure to different types of learning materials is beneficial for students and should be a feature of the college experience.
Limiting Implicit Bias and Culture Clashes
Unfortunately, professors aren’t exempt from the realities of implicit bias. In the classroom, all students should have the same opportunities and support, but this isn’t always the reality. Unconscious biases can result in students receiving less support, feeling unsafe in the classroom, or being held to a higher standard than their peers.
A diverse teaching staff can help reduce these problems by increasing faculty understanding and respect for other points of view, representing different cultural norms, and breaking down stereotypes. Diversity among professors also helps students feel seen and understood at school. Students who have professors from many different backgrounds have more opportunities to connect and communicate with their professors, build confidence, and get the help they need to succeed. This is key to reducing educational disparities in higher education.
Diverse Perspectives Help Students Grow
Professors pass along their own ideas and points of view to their students. It’s the nature of teaching. But when a student’s professors all have similar backgrounds, their exposure to different perspectives is extremely limited. We need to see more diversity among professors to ensure that students get a range of ideas and perspectives in the context of their college courses.
People learn and grow from new experiences. If a student isn’t exposed to different perspectives, then their ability to practice skills like creativity and empathy will be limited. College should be a place for students to open their minds and sample perspectives—not simply to reinforce a static worldview they’ve held all their lives.
Providing Role Models
A Black student who has never had a Black professor, a female engineering student with only male teachers may struggle to see themselves in these types of roles. It’s important for students to have role models they can look up to—people they can relate to and admire.
Young adults might think that they don’t need role models by the time they get to college. But the truth is that they are still absorbing cultural cues and shaping who they are as people. Diversity among higher education professors helps to ensure that all students have appropriate role models they can look up to.
An Uphill Climb
One of the roadblocks in the way of promoting diversity among professors is the lack of diversity within higher education leadership. Those who make staffing decisions are in the best position to help solve the problem, but they often lack the motivation to do so. Academic structures that make it difficult to let teachers go also have an impact.
As the United States becomes increasingly diverse and educational opportunities increase, we can’t afford to ignore this problem any longer. The benefits of diversity are clear. Now, we need to take action—even if it feels like an uphill climb.