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Reflecting Reality: The Push to Make Higher Ed More Diverse – and Relevant

June 12, 2017

The face of the nation is changing significantly, and we can clearly see that at our colleges and universities.  Four in 10 students are non-white, one-third are the first in their family to attempt college, and more than a quarter are parents as well as students. If higher education is going to remain relevant and better serve today’s college students, our content and product providers must make strides to catch up in terms of diversity – and keep up.

The experience of leading companies illustrates this challenge. Take Google as an example. In 2014, its workforce was 70 percent male and 61 percent white. To improve their diversity and make their campus a more “collaborative, inclusive, and competitive” environment, the company launched an internal unconscious bias training program. By 2016, the company’s numbers had improved, but only slightly.

Google is not the only player in that sector wrestling with the diversity question. Even Slack, whose diversity recruitment across the intersections of race and gender is ahead of many of its peers, still has a total employee population that is 60 percent white. In 2017, young, successful, and popular Silicon Valley founders are suggesting the tech industry is still largely homogenous. Any industry serving a diverse population but maintaining a largely homogenous workforce does a disservice to their customers and limits its ability to innovate and create culturally competent products.

The education publishing industry offers another example of the challenge to achieve diversity. America’s student population is becoming more diverse daily, yet publishing hasn’t changed much, even in light of criticism for racially and religiously imbalanced content in their textbooks.

The Census Bureau estimates more than half of the nation's children are expected to be part of a non-white racial or ethnic group by 2020. Failing to innovate more rapidly within educational publishing in digital or print tools – could leave our children without access to relevant educational materials.

Additionally, current hiring practices suggest these materials are created by industry employees who do not represent these students culturally, economically, or in educational backgrounds. How can educational publishers be responsible for the preparation of our future workforce if their own workforce bears no similarity to the population they serve?

What if we adopted a new approach to building a workforce, one that resembles the populations we serve, asking:

  • Do content and product providers represent our users (in products, programs, and community-focused initiatives)?
  • Have users significantly contributed to, or been considered in, the creation process for content and products?
  • How can we leverage change in these areas?

Sparking and sustaining systemic change won’t happen naturally, even with professed support or commitment. It’s imperative that we create practices that not only promote diversity, but also increase it.

Heather Hiles is a deputy director on the postsecondary success team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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