Diversity pays its way, says professor

Affirmative action seen as economic issue

July 20, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Jeffrey F. Milem thinks he might have found an argument for affirmative action in college admissions that appeals to even the most stubborn skeptics -- it pays money.

"Our findings showed the more diverse the college, the higher the wages post-college," says the assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The private sector knows it needs employees to serve a diverse marketplace. This is a dollars and cents issue to them."

Milem's conclusions are part of a report from the American Education Research Association. Considered the top academic association in the education field, it convened a panel of academics -- not to do original research, but to survey and summarize work done on diversity in higher education.

As Milem explains it, the book-length report set out to show that the usual arguments made against affirmative action do not hold water.

"There is a lot of discussion and heated debate about affirmative action, but very little of it is based on empirical evidence and solid research," he says. "What this tries to do is deal with some of the myths that have built up around the issue."

Milem, who went to College Park from Vanderbilt University a year ago, wrote a chapter on the benefits of diversity for institutions and students.

"Jeff did a terrific job of surveying a broad and complex body of research," says Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University who was co-chair of the association panel.

"He looked at the benefits of diversity more broadly than most people have, going outside the school setting, into business and other areas of life."

Milem found evidence for higher wages earned by graduates of diverse schools in a 1997 report by Daniel Kent of Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Dan Black of the University of Kentucky and Jeffrey Smith of the University of Western Ontario.

Their information was gathered from a longitudinal study -- year after year of interviews with young people of all races chosen in 1979. When the data were filtered to compare graduates of diverse colleges with those from less diverse schools, a significant difference in earnings showed up.

"More and more business people are defining cross-cultural competence as essential for their work force," Milem says. "If they do not have employees sensitive to these issues, they risk alienating large segments of the marketplace. People in education can learn from them."

Other chapters seek to knock down arguments against race-based affirmative action programs. "The first [argument] is that there is no longer any need for affirmative action, that the problem has been taken care of," he says. "But the research shows that inequalities still exist and that race is still a major factor in that."

Another objection -- that affirmative action unfairly benefits students with lower scores on standardized tests, such as the SAT, to the detriment of more deserving students -- is the focus of Linda Wightman, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She brings together a range of research showing no significant connection between test scores and success in college.

"A myth of meritocracy has built up around these scores," says Milem. "People talk like a 20-point difference in an SAT score means something, but there is no empirical evidence to show that it does. We are not saying do away with the tests, but they are not the only measure of merit."

Milem says he also finds benefits of diversity in positive social outcomes.

"Because of our patterns of residential segregation, most students are not exposed to diversity in their K through 12 years," he says. "The research shows college is the main opportunity most people have for this exposure."

Exposure to diversity leads to such benefits as increases in racial understanding and cultural awareness to a greater involvement in political and social affairs, Milem says. Other studies show that members of diverse groups can segregate themselves in college if the school does not provide programs that help students cross cultural barriers. But if colleges do, their students can have a profound effect on society.

"A diverse college environment can help break the cycle that perpetuates segregation," Milem says. "The whole idea of democracy is about providing opportunities for all citizens."

He sees his father as a beneficiary of the country's first big affirmative action program -- the GI Bill of Rights.

"That was really an attempt to extend the benefits of college to a whole segment of the population that had never enjoyed that," he says. " If that hadn't been available for my father, my life would have been quite different."

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