How diverse is diverse?

Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon addressed an audience January 16 on the status of campus diversity. “In addition to understanding our [current] problems, we have also made some concrete progress,” Cohon said. However, according to findings from a recent national study, CMU may have more work ahead than expected to increase diversity on campus.

The James Irvine Foundation, a non-profit group in San Francisco, performed the study “in response to the increasing number of students who fall into the ‘race/ethnicity unknown’ category of post-secondary demographic data.” According to the study, the “other” race category typically found on the standard college admissions application might be a source of inconsistency between reported and actual campus demographics.

“Our findings suggest that, overall, a sizeable portion of students in the ‘unknown’ category are white,” stated the James Irvine Foundation, “in addition to multiracial students who may have selected white as one of their categories.” The foundation conducted the study after gathering and comparing data from a survey of three private colleges in California. The foundation then compared the survey data to data attained from U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPED), which collects student data from all universities.

Results showed that in one of the colleges, the number of students classifying themselves as white rose to 70 percent after they were admitted, compared to only 42 percent beforehand. Meanwhile, the proportion of students of unknown race dropped from 32 percent to 4 percent.

The results of the study were significant enough to suggest that inaccurate student demographics may be a growing trend for universities across the country, making efforts to increase diversity on campuses even more challenging.

On Carnegie Mellon’s campus, the state of diversity has been closely followed since 1999 when Cohon created the Diversity Advisory Council. In its 2006 annual report, the DAC stated, “We are committed to establishing a campus culture that reflects a fundamental respect for different ways of living, working, and learning.”

Associate dean and civil and environmental engineering professor Jim Garrett currently serves as chair to the undergraduate student work group that helped to gather statistical data on CMU’s undergraduate student population. “President Cohon has often reminded us that increasing the diversity of all facets of our campus community is a strategic objective for his administration,” said Garrett. “Most of us would question how we could educate an effective business leader, engineer, or social scientist without providing them such a diverse environment.”

According to the DAC’s 2006 report, CMU’s undergraduate enrollment of minority students is improving. “White American students, typically thought of as the majority, are now slightly fewer in numbers than international and minority undergraduates combined,” the report stated. “There has been a significant change in the composition of the undergraduate student body over the last decade.”

However, the findings of the recently performed study by the James Irvine Foundation could have implications on CMU’s true demographic status. Students of unknown race make up at least 10 percent of CMU’s campus, according to the findings within the report.

“Sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result, we pay an opportunity cost,” Garrett said.