October 25, 2021

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The Education People

Diversity Questions for Colleges: What to Ask | Best Colleges

Colleges are often a microcosm of American society, with the same challenges, disagreements and cultural clashes playing out on campuses. That can lead to disputes and controversies centered around race, politics and various facets of one’s identity.

While social and political disagreements can prompt healthy conversations that push a campus community forward, these issues can often divide people. Regardless of their identity, prospective college students should find a place where they feel accepted for who they are, and having a sense of belonging matters when choosing a home for the next four years, experts say.

“Students are looking for places where they can feel safe physically, emotionally, psychologically,” says Pierre Morton, chief diversity officer for Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

On the heels of a tumultuous year of nationwide protests following the deaths of unarmed Black Americans such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, applications to historically Black colleges and universities are climbing. The number of Hispanic Serving Institutions also continues to grow year over year, reflecting the changing demographics of the U.S. population.

Mari Martin-Fuentes, vice president for student success and engagement at Texas A&M University—San Antonio, an HSI, notes that students are on different journeys and don’t all want the same thing out of a college experience. She encourages students to consider what they want from college and ask questions specific to the experience they are seeking.

“What makes college so phenomenal is that it is an opportunity to learn from people who are different from you,” says Shaya Gregory Poku, associate vice president for institutional equity and belonging at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She adds that it’s important for students to find a college where they feel comfortable but are also challenged in ways that contribute to their growth.

To help students from diverse backgrounds better understand what to ask of colleges, U.S. News crowdsourced questions from school officials. Questions are largely centered around students of color, LGBTQ students, religious minorities, those with disabilities, other protected classes and groups often marginalized. Some questions have been edited for length or clarity.

Diversity Questions for College Students of Color

Given the vast diversity on U.S. college campuses, prospective students of color – like all students – may have unique needs. For example, an immigrant student still perfecting his or her English may need different supports than a classmate with a dissimilar lived experience.

Students should ask about their own specific needs but can consider these questions as a starting point:

  • What are the retention and graduation rates for students of color, and are there racial disparities?
  • What is campus culture like for students like me?
  • How do I become part of the campus community?
  • Are there academic departments that focus on race-specific topics, such as African American studies or other races?
  • Are there tenured faculty of color?
  • What are your bias incident reporting statistics?
  • Does the university have a diversity statement?
  • Is the diversity statement tied to the university’s strategic plan?
  • What are the educational supports for students who speak English as a second language?
  • What are campus policies for undocumented students?

Morton also advises prospective students to pay attention to where bias incidents are taking place. Are they happening in the classroom or off campus? Similarly, students should consider trends in bias incidents to see how colleges address such issues.

Questions for Students With Disabilities

By law, colleges have to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. But that doesn’t always mean such efforts are satisfactory. Asking the following questions can help students learn more about how the accommodation process works at a particular college.

  • What kind of assistive technology is available?
  • What does the accommodation process look like?
  • How difficult is it to fill out the forms requesting accommodation?
  • What’s the turnaround time for accommodations in terms of housing and academic needs?
  • Are there tools and resources to help every student succeed, regardless of a disability?

Gregory Poku also encourages prospective students to look closely at how the campus is structured if they visit the college. For example, students may want to pay attention to how accessible public spaces are and available physical accommodations.

Questions for LGBTQ Students

Though the acceptance of gay rights has increased in the U.S. over the years, discrimination against LGBTQ students remains. Some colleges with a religious mission have also instituted policies – exempt from Title IX, the law that prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex – that bar students from same-sex relationships.

While such exemptions are limited, students should be aware of them when considering a college. They should also ask questions that give them a sense of safety and help them determine whether they will be supported on campus regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

  • Are there staff or centers that work to directly support LGBTQ students?
  • Are there academic departments devoted to queer studies or women’s and gender studies?
  • What housing accommodations are available for transgender or gender-nonconforming students?
  • What policies exist around using preferred names instead of legal names given at birth?
  • Can students be addressed by their preferred gender or gender-neutral pronouns?

Questions for Religious Minorities

Religious conflict is both a tale as old as time and a current source of strife for many, especially those outside the mainstream of a society. Experts say religious minorities should consider these questions when looking for a college where they can openly practice their faith:

  • Are there interfaith houses of worship or spaces for students who are religious minorities?
  • Are these dedicated or shared spaces, and are they safe and monitored?
  • Do students have the resources and spaces needed to practice their faith on campus?
  • What dining options are available to accommodate a diet for religious practices?
  • How easy or difficult is it to get dining accommodations for such diets?

Questions for Politically Active Students

Being shunned or marginalized for holding political views contrary to the majority of campus can be an isolating experience for some students, though they are not necessarily a protected class. Students on the political left and right alike have clashed with classmates and college officials in recent years as cultural wars in American society play out on campuses.

To understand campus politics and tolerance of diverse viewpoints, students can consider asking the following questions and remain open to hearing opposing viewpoints:

  • What political clubs or student organizations are available to join?
  • What kind of speakers has the college brought to campus?
  • What are the campus free speech policies?
  • What are the controversial issues on campus?
  • How are controversial issues discussed?

How to Ask Questions About Campus Diversity

Prospective students can ask these questions of admissions officers or college tour guides, but those who want to go in-depth on these issues may also want to speak to a chief diversity officer, dean of students or someone else working directly on these matters, experts say.

Students seeking certain accommodations may want to pose questions to residence life staff or the campus office responsible for providing services in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Student groups representing specific populations may also offer an honest and unfiltered view of campus life.

While experts say campus officials should be willing to engage around these issues, there may be some red flags to pay attention to, such as school officials not answering certain questions when given time to do so or providing responses that are overly broad.

Gregory Poku reminds students that diversity isn’t about putting oneself in a bubble, but engaging with and learning from others – people who think differently and have dissimilar mindsets and life experiences. After all, she notes, that’s what college is all about.