Ambiguity of Diversity and Inclusion Claims Surrounding University Admissions

Author(s): Fazeela Wadan

Mentor(s): Blake Silver, Sociology & Anthropology


When applying to universities, people of color are often drawn to schools that advocate for diversity and inclusivity amongst their students, yet the statistical evidence of the acceptance rates based on race do not line up. The term “American meritocracy” sheds light on the topic of preferential admission into colleges based on socioeconomic status regardless of race. Thus, this brings up the question of what universities mean when they advocate for inclusion and diversity. Additionally, whether the definition they advocate for is the same definition of diversity that the prospective students interpret. The impact of this unclear communication stemming from the ambiguous language of schools’ results in ongoing disparities, specifically for those who do not have access to a proper mentor that can guide them during the complicated application process. Although universities attempt to communicate that they are inclusive and welcoming, it is still unknown how students receive these messages, or how they interpret them as they plan for college applications. This gap in knowledge is addressed and the perceptions of both critical parties are brought one step closer to being aligned through this research project. Structured interviews are being conducted with 20 participants, all first-year Mason students. Although no conclusions can be drawn currently as the data collection process is ongoing as of yet, the results of the preliminary analysis show that every participant had a different personal interpretation of the word diversity and were under the assumption that universities are using the same definition as them.

Video Transcript

My project is titled ambiguity of diversity and inclusion claims surrounding university admissions. 

A little bit of background of my project is that I noticed universities were often advocating for diversity and inclusion, yet their racial statistics did not match up to their claims. My major concern was that this would send a message that would be misinterpreted by prospective students, especially first-generation students or those that do not have the proper resources or mentors to help them during the college application process. My project looks into answering the questions of how students define diversity and what definition they believe universities are using as diversity is a word that can mean many things. 

This was done by interviewing 20 first-year Mason students where I ask them a series of questions about their college applications and their perception of diversity as I just mentioned. The interview recordings are then professionally transcribed, and the transcriptions are run through analytical coding software which allows patterns between responses to be seen and visualized more holistically. 

As I am still in the data collection and analysis process, I am only able to present preliminary results that I have seen in the interviews I have been able to analyze. Here, I am comparing two of the interviews that have been completed so far, where the first participant identifies as a white woman and the second as a Hispanic man. Looking at their responses to the same questions side-by-side offers a new perspective of just how different each person can interpret a message. For example, the first participant defined diversity as acceptance with the first categories that came to mind being gender, race, ethnicities, and cultures, while the second participant defined it as acknowledgment with the defined categories of age, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. Similarly, for the first participant, diversity was a priority when applying as well as feeling safe in a new environment, while for the second participant finding a school that had the right program for him was a priority. The second participant also mentioned a particular public technical institution that on multiple occasions made claims of being proud of their diversity but in reality, when he went to visit the campus, there was barely any diversity present. On the other hand, the first participant could not recall any particular university promoting diversity and then not upholding their claims.  

Based on the preliminary results and patterns noticed so far, every participant has given a different variation of the definition of diversity and assumed institutions followed the same definition as them. Also, the results are beginning to build a bridge between the increasing number of college applicants and the schools they are applying to. This project and its results also apply to other higher-level education institutions, not strictly undergraduate schools. The results will clarify what is not communicated between the two parties. I hope to further this research in the future by looking into universities’ admission offices perspective next.

8 replies on “Ambiguity of Diversity and Inclusion Claims Surrounding University Admissions”

Hi Fazeela! Awesome job on this!
My question is about how you think universities could be more honest about their diversity claims. Should their websites define what they mean by diversity? Or do you think their should be one specific definition that all colleges follow? I know these are very broad, but I am interested in how universities might correct this problem.

Hi Kara, thank you for the comment! I personally believe that each school should have its own specific definition made explicit in a way that would be hard to miss for prospective students. This is based on the responses I received about what students usually prioritize when looking for a school to apply to, where every participant looked for schools that had similar expectations and beliefs as them. Because of this, I think it is important for schools to have different definitions of diversity in case there is a specific type of person that hopes to find a certain type of environment that they can fit into. Additionally, as I have touched on, diversity has a number of definitions and thus many of them would not be done justice if each school had a set few categories that they prioritized. In order for there to be a school for every type of diversity, each school should hone in on a few that are most important to them. Diversity of all kinds is critical, but I believe every school having the same highlighted definition would defeat the purpose, as many times there are people that fall into specific groups but not into others.

Well done, Fazeela. I look forward to hearing the results when you are finished with your analysis. For your next step, you are interested in investigating the Admissions perspective. Could you elaborate a little on that? Do you plan to compare the admissions perspective to the student perspective?

Thank you, Dr. Lee! My next step would be to undergo a similar procedure but to gain a greater understanding of the universities’ perspective. I would ask similar questions that the students were asked, in order to see whether there is an overlap in the responses between the two groups. By comparing the schools’ responses to the students’, I will be able to analyze more in-depth whether there is a discontinuity between the two parties concerning what kind of students the universities are truly looking for when making claims of diversity and wishing to increase it, and what the students actually interpret of this message.

Great job done on this project Fazeela! We used to have an Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education and now they are renamed as Center for Culture, Equity, and Empowerment. They have a great perspective on how Mason and other educational institutions work to include more minorities on their board.

Thank you for the comment! This will help me in the next steps of this project where I wish to understand the universities’ perspective. I will take this into account when planning who to speak to in that segment of the project. Thank you, again!

Hello Fazeela, nice presentation! The difference between perceived diversity as “acceptance” and diversity as “acknowledgement” was very interesting. Also, you mentioned that every student you interviewed had a different understanding of what diversity means. Why do you think there is such variation in how students understand diversity?

Thank you! To answer your question, I believe two people will never have the same exact understanding of certain concepts as everyone comes from different backgrounds, upbringings, and have different experiences. Everything that a person goes through shapes the way they perceive the world. When looking at those two participants’ responses specifically, the difference in their background and experiences is prominent as they perceived the meaning of the same word to mean two different things. Additionally, based on what I assume to be from his identity as a person of color and the experiences he has had as a Hispanic man, that participant was able to hone in on a specific school not upholding their claims about diversity, while the other participant was not based on her experiences and perspective on things. I believe we tend to shape the definition of diversity, along with other concepts we come across, around the experiences we have had and our own identity, and since everyone is different in some way or another, it is expected that there would be variation in how students understand diversity.

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