Do Colleges Focus on “Diversity” so They Don’t Have to Talk About Social Mobility?

One reason elite colleges focus on “diversity” is to distract attention from the fact that the students they admit are overwhelmingly from wealthy backgrounds

Noah Carl
8 min readMay 5, 2020

Achieving “diversity” on campus has been a priority at US colleges ever since the landmark decision in University of California v. Bakke (1978), when the Supreme Court ruled that “the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances.” This ruling was upheld in another landmark decision, that of Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), when the Court reaffirmed that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.”

In recent years, the goal of achieving “diversity” (which is generally taken to mean “increasing the proportion of students and faculty from underrepresented minority groups”) has taken centre stage in higher education. For example, many colleges now include a “diversity statement” as part of, or alongside, their official mission statement. (The researcher David Rozado analysed how the concept of “diversity” is operationalised in such statements, and found that universities “prioritize demographic types of diversity […] over intellectual heterogeneity”.)

Of course, “diversity” is often combined with two related concepts, “inclusion” and “equity”, and together these form the acronym ‘DIE’. Universities’ efforts to promote “diversity, inclusion and equity” have given rise to vast bureaucracies, populated by individuals with kafkaesque titles such as ‘Program Officer Associate, Centre for Engineering Diversity and Outreach’. As The Economist notes, “Bureaucrats outnumber faculty 2:1 at public universities and 2.5:1 at private colleges, double the ratio in the 1970s. Diversity is the top justification for these hires, says Richard Vedder of the Centre for College Affordability and Productivity”.

Furthermore, efforts to promote “diversity, inclusion and equity” have sometimes manifested in bizarre ways, such as encouraging students to segregate along racial lines. (In a 2019 report, the National Association of Scholars documented cases of “racially separate student orientations, racially-identified student centers, racially-identified student counseling, racially-identified academic programs, racially separate student activities, racially-specific political agendas, racially-exclusive graduation ceremonies, and racially-organized alumni groups”). They have also led to the introduction of whole new courses, such as ‘Diversity and Inclusion Management’ at the Harvard Business School, as well as optional — or in some cases mandatory — “diversity training” for college faculty.

There are several reasons why colleges might have chosen to focus so much on “diversity” in recent years, including the general increase in salience that issues surrounding demographic group-membership seem to have acquired (a.k.a., “The Great Awokening”). One possible reason I want to explore in this blog post is that focussing on “diversity” allows colleges to distract attention from the fact that the students they admit are overwhelmingly from wealthy backgrounds. In other words, focussing on “diversity” means that they don’t have to talk about social mobility.

The theory I want to consider builds on an argument Steve Sailer made in an article last year. The question he sought to answer was, “What accounts for The Great Awokening that began in roughly 2013?” One possibility, Sailer noted, is that “Woke Capital cynically conspired to divide and conquer economic leftism by promoting the Great Awokening”. As he explained:

The conspiracy theory is that the emergence of a socialist protest movement three years after the economic collapse of 2008 terrified the rich. But they noticed that Occupy was easily distracted from its class warfare by its urge to indulge the perpetually wounded feelings of the “progressive stack.” The more intersectional Pokémon Points that would-be speakers possess, the more likely they are chosen to orate.

The same idea was discussed by Ed West in a 2015 article titled, ‘Why is big business so interested in left-wing politics?’. As West noted, promoting social justice is “a cheap way for businesses to get some easy PR while also diverting attention from their own, often ruthless, business practices. Never mind our tax affairs, let’s talk about how awful racism is!” (Ironically, although Sailer and West are both on the right, their analysis is distinctly Marxist.)

Returning to colleges’ preoccupation with “diversity”, the theory goes like this. Colleges, especially elite colleges, want to have as much influence in society as possible. In order to have a lot of influence, they need to have a lot of money, but they also need to pick the “right” students, including those who have well-connected family members. One way they can get more money is by investing their copious endowment funds. (As an article from 2016 noted, people are now calling Harvard “a hedge fund with a university attached.”) But colleges can only justify their lucrative, tax-exempt status if they are seen as socially progressive institutions, rather than as bastions of elite privilege.

Unfortunately, taking students from poor backgrounds isn’t a very effective way for colleges to line their pockets, or to bolster their sway in the halls of power. Such students are typically enrolled on scholarships or full bursaries, and their parents aren’t very likely to “remember the college” when making their next donation. (Nor are their parents likely to be able to call in any favours on the college’s behalf in Washington.) It therefore makes sense for colleges to keep the focus on demographic “diversity”, which is something they can achieve at relatively low cost. This allows them to pad their coffers, and maintain their influence, whilst still being seen as socially progressive.

Pressure on elite institutions—not only Wall Street banks but elite colleges too—intensified in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, so they had to redouble their efforts to be seen as socially progressive. Hence their all-out campaign to promote “diversity, inclusion and equity” over the last ten years. Before considering one major objection to the theory I have just outlined, let us look at some of the evidence.

In a widely publicised 2017 paper, Raj Chetty and colleagues analysed data on family background, college attendance and adult earnings for over 30 million college students. They found that “children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile”. The distribution of students by parental income for four different colleges, and for the “Ivy-Plus”, are shown in Panels A and B below. Looking at Harvard in Panel A, 70% of students are from the top 20% of the income distribution, while only 3% are from the bottom 20% of the income distribution. (By contrast, at Glendale Community College, more students are from the bottom 20% than are from the top 20%.)

If we compare this to the distribution of students at Ivy League colleges by race, we see that students from poor backgrounds are far more underrepresented than are black and Hispanic students. The chart below, which is based on a New York Times analysis, shows that black students are underrepresented by 6 percentage points at Ivy League colleges (or by a factor of 1.7), and that Hispanic students are underrepresented by 7 percentage points (or by a factor of 1.5). By contrast, Chetty and colleagues’ findings indicate that students from the bottom 20% are underrepresented at the “Ivy-Plus” by 16 percentage points (or by a factor of 5.3).

(Incidentally, I am not arguing that any group should be more or less represented at elite colleges, but merely pointing out what the evidence says about which groups are the least represented.)

According to another New York Times analysis, which is shown in the chart below, the share of students at elite colleges from the bottom 40% of the income distribution fell between 2002 and 2005, remained flat between 2005 and 2010, and then fell again between 2010 and 2013. By contrast, the share of students from the top 1% rose over the same time period. This indicates that, if anything, the intake of elite colleges has become even wealthier since the 2008 Financial Crisis.

Furthermore, according to Richard Kahlenberg, writing in The Economist, “at Harvard, 71% of the black and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds.” This indicates that even most of the underrepresented minority students at Harvard are from well-off families. And indeed, Walter Benn Michaels has said, “When students and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids have.”

A key prediction the theory makes is that efforts to promote “diversity” should be concentrated at the most elite colleges, such as the “Ivy Plus” and top liberal arts schools. While this seems true anecdotally, I am not aware of any systematic evidence supporting it. (A 2017 analysis found that there were more speaker disinvitation attempts at colleges where a higher proportion of the students came from the top 20%, but this isn’t really a measure of a university’s commitment to “diversity”.)

A major objection to the theory is that “diversity” may not be something that colleges can achieve “at relatively low cost”. Indeed, their vast diversity bureaucracies seem to be rather costly, and this doesn’t square with the assumption that universities focus on “diversity” as a way to line their pockets. On the other hand, one could argue that they make the money back in the form of donations from wealthy alumni, who are assured by the existence of diversity bureaucracies that they are contributing to a socially progressive cause. In addition, such bureaucracies might not be too onerous for colleges like Harvard, which has amassed an endowment of $41 billion.

In conclusion, one possible reason why elite colleges now focus so much on “diversity” is that it allows them to distract attention from the fact that the students they admit are overwhelmingly from wealthy backgrounds. (Of course, colleges may have other reasons for focussing on “diversity” aside from this one.) While the theory I have outlined seems intuitively plausible, there is not yet much systematic evidence in its favour. (Indeed, Sailer noted of his own theory that he has “never uncovered all that much evidence for it”.)

As noted above, one prediction the theory makes is that efforts to promote “diversity” should be concentrated at elite colleges. Another prediction is that, holding college status constant, efforts to promote “diversity” should be concentrated among those that take the fewest students from poor backgrounds. And a third, rather obvious prediction is that if you talk to college administrators off the record, they will tell you that the theory has some merit! Hopefully, these predictions can and will be tested in future research.