Cultural Diversity in Higher Education

As the 21st Century opens, it is a good time to consider how cultural diversity---which is viewed by this writer as being the collection of various cultures within a country---affects higher education in the United States today. Also, by looking at the current trends in the way higher education deals with cultural diversity, one may forecast where cultural diversity in higher education may be heading. Finally, one may consider what new innovations higher education may see in the years ahead in response to the nation’s cultural diversity. This country, more than any other, is blessed with cultural diversity. Traditional minority groups will be numerically elevated to ever increasing proportions of the population. For this reason it is beneficial to consider how host institutions view their diverse student populations. Educators are at a crucial time in this nation’s history---a time when national policies concerning cultural diversity can truly affect the stability of the country---and colleges and universities should plan accordingly. There is a lot riding on how well the citizens of the United States handle the characteristic cultural diversity of the country.

The Culturally Diverse Nation

Historically, the United States has had a mixed (if not, poor) record in embracing cultural diversity. The example provided below mentions the shameful disregard for the Native Americans in 19th-Century California. More recently, cultural diversity has been held in greater esteem. A fine example of the "convergence power of cultural diversity," as it might be called, is in the United State’s policy of admitting many immigrants. In particular, the "open door" policies at the time of World War I allowed this country to acquire many powerful thinkers and scientists representing several cultures. Institutions of higher learning in the United States will continue to deal with the cultural diversity of their population. Indeed, the country itself will have to reawaken to the necessity of embracing cultural diversity. The citizenry of the United States cannot return to a callous state in viewing cultural diversity and expect the country to continue to prosper. Diversity has come to be embraced by some as one of the country’s greatest strengths. While "diversity" has a connotation of "division," the act of drawing people together and attempting to unify their myriad cultures (as schools tend to do) has created an American sense of "uni-versity." It is in this positive light that diversity will be viewed here. Diversity will further strengthen the United States as new minds with new views are added to the society. This is true of the country’s universities and colleges, as well. Strength through cultural diversity is now a part of the country’s prosperity. The strength through cultural diversity concept should be integrated into higher education’s ideal of providing positive direction toward philosophic experimentation and potential leadership of the society.

The best way to see where something is going is to take at look back at where it has been. It is enlightening to consider what a student of education thought about the development of higher education itself in the early days of junior college development. The college historian Dr. R. P. Pedersen has kindly made several interesting historical documents readily available. One of these is a 1917 Master’s thesis written by Elizabeth Brooks, entitled "The Junior College." Brooks asserts that the northern and southern colonies addressed the issue of higher education differently in the Colonial period of American history. She speaks of "geographical and industrial factors" as having been the main agents of diversity (not specifically "cultural," however at least some element of "cultural diversity" is implicit) at this time. Factors of geography and industrialization, as well as chronology---both the South and the West were settled later than the North---led to the slower development of educational systems in the West (which was still the "new frontier") in the 19th Century (Brooks, Ch. I).

The tremendous growth of the United States during the 19th Century, bolstered by the legislative ideal of "Manifest Destiny"---which served to open the West and "validate" the taking of more Native American lands---should not be overlooked. The expansionist philosophy of 20th-Century institutions of higher learning was grounded in the "we must grow" ideology of the country. The country’s growth was phenomenal: there has been no greater combined growth of per capita income, population, and "territorial holdings" for any country in the world before or since the 1800s (McPherson, 1988, p. 49). While the country’s territorial growth ended in the middle of the 20th Century, its population continued to increase and is expected to increase further. Being the proverbial "melting pot," this country of immigrants will now grow with an ever-greater realization of the importance of its diversity of cultures. Dr. Taber observes "the 'diversity issue' provoke[s] great controversy among our citizenry today" (2001). The controversial side of cultural diversity must lie largely in ignorance. As Orfield mentions, "few studies on the benefits of diversity" have been conducted (1999), implying that more studies examining cultural diversity should be conducted.

How Much Cultural Diversity is there in College?

There are many cultures in the "melting pot," but one might ask, "just what are the numbers?" While the National Center for Education Statistics usually break cultures down into merely "race/ethnicity" and include figures often only for "White," "Black," and "Hispanic;' the breakdown is enough to get a rough idea of the numbers of students in college who have a cultural heritage which might be deemed "non-traditional" or "non-White." From the numbers extracted from the table entitled "College enrollment rates of high school graduates, by race/ethnicity: 1960 to 1999" one finds that in 1976, 1,291,000 Whites (or 48.9% of those graduating from high school) were enrolled in college. By 1999, 1,822,000 (or 62.8% of the White students graduating from high school) were enrolled in college. The majority of the "non-traditional" cultures can be subsumed under the (arguably demeaning) title of "Non-White." The figures provided in the table for "Non-White" cultures---numerically significant are "Black" and "Hispanic;" "Asian" and "Native American," for example, are not separately enumerated---are as follows: in 1976 there were 214,000 Non-White students (representing about 44% of those Non-Whites who graduated from high school); in 1999 there were 407,000 (then representing about 55% of those Non-Whites who graduated from high school) (NCES).

The term this writer prefers to "Non-White" is "non-traditional." Non-traditional is used here to mean any culture which may be considered as being outside the mainstream ("mainstream" being cultures generally of European extract); "traditional" is then taken to mean mainstream. Interpreting the NCES figures as percentages of the whole body of high school graduates in the years being considered, one finds that in 1976 the non-traditional segment of the students amounted to about 7.2%---by 1999 that figure had risen to 14.0%---clearly indicating a percentage increase in the non-traditional cultures represented in the population of college matriculates from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1990s. The need for traditional college faculty to better understand non-traditional cultures is at least numerically founded.

Teaching Culturally Diverse Students

There is much literature concerning methods of improving the schooling success of "non-traditional" students. Rather than go into proposals for improvement, one begins by realizing first that "traditional" educators lack the ability to deal with classroom cultural diversity effectively. Nelson (1996) tells of how he was totally unaware of such a deficiency on his part until he looked closely at who among his students were actually scholastically successful. Nelson found that non-traditional students generally were unsuccessful. Cited in his article are several findings in a similar vein by other educators. The collective findings (his and those of his peers) led Nelson (1996) to conclude "(almost) all traditionally taught courses are unintentionally but nevertheless deeply biased in ways that make substantial differences in performance for many students" (p. 3).

Once recognized, there are various ways to address our ability to teach effectively in light of the cultural diversity of our students. Nelson (1996) mentions how, by simply requiring students to write out in English what they did to arrive at a solution to one of their calculus problems, learning dramatically increased. Nelson (1996), citing an example from Angelo and Cross, notes that the intent was not actually to deal with cultural diversity, yet the success rate of non-traditional students improved greatly from this simple exercise (p. 3). As another example, there is the approach advocated by Wang and Oates (1995) where "collaboration among family, school, and community" is considered (p. 1). Their efforts are being applied at the secondary level, but there is no reason not to extend this concept to higher education as much as possible. As stated before, recognition must precede correction, and it this recognition that is examined here. It is important that the reader understand that corrective approaches to the inability to deal with classroom cultural diversity do exist, however.

Some educators have devised innovative approaches to teaching diverse student populations. Ofori-Dankwa and Lane (2000), for instance, suggest employing what they call the "diversimilarity" approach. Diversimilarity involves exposing students to both similarities and differences of cultures. Clark (2001) speaks of something as simple as a cultural brochure project as being beneficial to students in the study of cultural diversity. These examples demonstrate that while some approaches might be rather difficult to implement, others are relatively easy.

Ethnocentricism Must be Quashed

A negative aspect in any society (which makes it difficult to embrace and at times even tolerate, cultural diversity) is ethnocentricism. Ethnocentricism is when people of a given culture view their particular culture as being better, or even the only one truly worthy of existence. As concerns this evil, one is right to remember the plight of people who have been historically harmed by the ethnocentric ideals of others. Two examples, ones that are admittedly graphic, are mentioned. First, the open disregard for the native people of this land will be touched. Secondly, the handling of African-Americans who were forced to come to this country in bondage is considered. It would be remiss to overlook the Native-American and African-American populations, however these cultures are not the only ones that have suffered from the ethnocentricism of others. There are many cultures represented under the headings of both Native-American and African-American people. Sadly, many of these cultures are now extinct. Those that remain have been enculturated by ethnocentric pressure from the European colonizers of North and South America, Asia, and Africa. The purpose of providing these examples of ethnocentricism is to shock readers into thinking about ones personal thoughts concerning multiculturalism---"multiculturalism" being antiethnocentricism, in a word. (To "multiculturalize" would be to attempt to attain multiculturalism within a society.)

The cultures of the remaining Native-Americans are of particular interest since these people have attempted to retain their traditional cultures to some extent. There are innumerable accounts of how the early policy in dealing with Native-Americans was one of genocide. For example, McPherson (1988) describes how "in California alone disease, malnutrition, firewater, and homicide reduced the Indian population from an estimated 150,000 in 1845 to 35,000 by 1860." The manifest destiny that represented hope for white Americans thus spelled doom for red Americans" (p. 46). Their cultures were not appreciated even 100 years ago, but now it is understood that, as David Whitehorse (1996, p.336) puts it, multi-cultural studies "may provide important understanding of underlying value orientation, cultural beliefs, and patterns of thought." All of this is valuable "especially as teachers attempt to multiculturalize learning environments to match the multicultural aspects of the student population."

In a recent article by Kidwell (1999), one is reminded of the Native American studies programs that were instituted in the 1960s and 1970s largely through student protest. Kidwell notes that

political activism spawned by U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War increased sensitivity to racism. Not without reason, activists compared the massacres of Cheyenne families at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 and Big Foot's band of Lakota (Sioux) at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890 [to civilian massacres of Vietnamese in the 1960s] (p. 2).

It is curious to note that activists connected the "cultural ignorance" in the 19th Century with the disgraceful acts of "war" witnessed only 30 short years ago. It was ethnocentricism that allowed these acts of violence to occur. The connection is that ethnocentricism rears its ugly head and somehow always "justifies" acts that are terrible hate crimes in disguise. By attempting to embrace other cultures, one is less likely to try and destroy them. Thus, ethnocentricism must go and fuller understanding of the cultures one is to live with should be the proper humanitarian goals taught by (and acted on by) educators.

Historical accounts, such as those described in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, are graphic reminders of how people can be completely ethnocentric. While the actions of our ancestral white settlers are somehow often "historically justified," it should be remembered that Stowe wrote her book in 1853 and the events at Wounded Knee took place in the very late 19th Century. The point is that only a few generations ago there were predominant feelings of distaste for non-Europeans. This gross ethnocentricism is something the country cannot tolerate. There are opposing views on how much (and even what) remains to be done to improve the conditions of Native Americans, African Americans, and minorities overall, but there is at least some positive aspect to our being at least aware of the condition of "multiculturalism deferred," which appears to exist today. Again, multiculturalism should be taught and emulated by educators. Education is the best defense for bigotry. Studies might furthermore educate the educators.

A second example of ethnocentricism is well documented in works by Stowe. There is little reason to go into particular detail about how African Americans were originally treated. One has no regard for a culture that one forcibly enslaves. It is sufficient to remember that the very act of educating African Americans was considered punishable. In banning African education the message is clear that the people were not respected and were meant to be forever subordinate to their white masters. The whole matter is just as unpalatable as that of the ethnocentricism visited upon Native Americans. Ethnocentricism should be abolished just as certainly as education should be provided to all people.

Orfield (1999) argues, for example, that renewed attention must be given to multi-culturalism. He warns that recent efforts to reverse affirmative action policies are wrong. Part of his argument is that there will be a loss of diversity.

To many researchers, the benefits of diversity seemed self-evident, so they focused on examining how best to encourage it. [Affirmative action was overturned in California and Texas in 1996, and the resulting] … anti-affirmative-action lawsuits and referenda proliferating throughout the country have roused educational leaders into clear awareness of the importance of research [into the benefits of cultural diversity] (p. 2).

On the other hand, that two states would overturn affirmative action policies implies that the majority of the voters in these states feel that this policy no longer works. According to Williams (1997) (using data from a Lipset survey), over "70 percent of the respondents opposed preferential treatment while only 24 percent supported it. Among blacks, 66 percent opposed preferential treatment and 32 percent supported it" (p. 1). If these are true sentiments of the majority (and minority), then perhaps affirmative action should indeed be overturned. Admittedly, affirmative action may function differently today than it did when it was originally established. Whether it should even be mentioned here may be questioned, but since the intent is to "expose" and "shock," this writer feels that affirmative action is worthy of note. It might be remembered that affirmative action was originally applied to Women and African Americans, alike. There might herein lie some thought as to how women were treated in earlier times. Still, it seems appropriate not to say more than simply "ethnocentricism must be quashed," and leave the matter of affirmative action to the voters and legislators.

Racism and bigotry have not been alleviated in our society. At best, ethnocentricism has been tempered through exposure for the evil that it is. The need exists to further educate students and educators alike about the requisite understanding of our diverse cultures. It is shortsighted to merely ignore cultural differences and expect that anything good a culture has to offer will be integrated into our mainstream values. Few educators would deny that steps should continue to be taken to encourage multiculturalism. It is safe to conclude that multiculturalism will have ever-increasing importance to education and the nation in the years to come. In the end (or even the beginning---thinking of this century) ethnocentricism must be quashed.


Brooks, E. (1917). The Junior College. Master's thesis, Clark University. In R. Petersen (Ed.), Junior College History (database). Available (in part):

Clark, L. (2001). Students as constructors of their cultural heritage. College Teaching [Electronic database], 49(1). Ipswich, MA: Academic Search Elite [Producer and Distributor].

Kidwell, C. S. (1999). The vanishing Indian reappears in the college curriculum. In Next Steps: Research and Practice To Advance Indian Education. ERIC Document Reproduction Service [Electronic database]. Los Angeles, CA: ERIC Clearing House for Junior Colleges [Producer and Distributor].

McPherson, J. M. (1988). Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballantine.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2000, June). Table 184. College enrollment rates of high school graduates, by race/ethnicity: 1960 to 1999 (

Nelson, C. (1996). Student diversity requires different approaches to college teaching, even in math and science. American Behavioral Scientist [Electronic database], 40(2). Ipswich, MA: Academic Search Elite [Producer and Distributor].

Ofori-Dankwa, J. & Lane, R. W. (2000). Four approaches to cultural diversity: implications for teaching at institutions of higher education. Teaching in Higher Education [Electronic database], 5(4). Ipswich, MA: Academic Search Elite [Producer and Distributor].

Orfield, G. (1999). Affirmative action works-but judges and policy makers need to hear that verdict. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(16). ERIC Document Reproduction Service [Electronic database]. Los Angeles, CA: ERIC Clearing House for Junior Colleges [Producer and Distributor].

Taber, L. (2001). Personal communication.

Wang, M. C. & Oates, J. (1995). Effective school responses to student diversity in inner-city schools. Education & Urban Society [Electronic database], 27(4). Ipswich, MA: Academic Search Elite [Producer and Distributor].

Whitehorse, D. (1996). New directions in teacher thinking: Linking theory to practice. In F. Ríos (Ed.), Teacher Thinking in Cultural Contexts. SUNY Series, The Social Context of Education, 325-386. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Williams, W. E. (1997). Affirmative action can't be mended. The Cato Journal, 17(1) Washington: Cato Institute. Available:

David Milligan

Special thanks goes out to Dr. Lynn Taber at the University of South Florida for her assistance in preparing this paper.

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