Stop Virtue Signaling: How to Market Campus Diversity

Gen Z wants to know: Is your institution being real about the diversity of its campus culture?

By: Aila Boyd
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Current and upcoming college students now are more diverse than previous generations. The diversity is not static, with many exhibiting many different, often intersecting, identities. Students are also more open about what they expect their institutions to provide in terms of acknowledging and fostering this diversity.

Information from the Pew Research Center on Generation Z, those born after 1996, indicates that only 52% are non-Hispanic white, a nine-point drop compared to Millennials. According to the center, Generation Z “represents the leading edge of the country’s changing racial and ethnic makeup.” The generation is 25% Hispanic, 14% Black, 6% Asian and 5% of some other race or two or more races.

Additionally, 62% of the generation says “increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a good thing for our society.” One in five Generation Z adults identify as part of the LGBTQ community, nearly double the proportion of Millennials who do, according to 2021 data from Gallup.

It should come as no surprise, given the demographics, that the consumer research firm quantilope found that 76% of Generation Z consider the topic of diversity and inclusion to be important when it comes to brand marketing.  

Due to the diversity of college-aged students and their desire for diversity-affirming brands, higher education institutions are looking at ways to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on their campuses and signal that they’re doing so to prospective students. 

Desire For Diversity 

Anna Ren is an admissions consultant and founder of Elite Advantage Prep. In the past two to three years, she has noticed that there has been a growing desire among college-aged students to know whether particular campuses are diverse. 

“Inclusion and social justice is a big concern with this new generation,” said Ren “A lot of my students are much more involved in those types of issues.”

Jennifer Gayles, the director of admission and inclusive outreach at Sarah Lawrence College, has observed the same desire by students.

“Throughout the entire process we see that there is a student interest in diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Gayles. 

As part of her role, she makes sure her staff has the language and information they need to talk about DEI issues when recruiting diverse students. Out of the New York-based private liberal arts college’s 1,377 undergraduate students, 25% are of color, and 14% are international. 

As Old Dominion University’s assistant vice president for enrollment and executive director of admissions, Christopher Fleming has experienced the same phenomenon. The Virginia-based public institution’s current enrollment is 23,494—600 of which are international students. Underrepresented ethnic groups account for 38% of the university’s student population. 

“Students are very cognizant about what they’re looking for in a college education experience; I think diversity is one of those,” said Fleming. “They really want to see a higher ed environment that looks like them, that resembles some of the values they’ve been brought up with.”

Fleming explained that a desire to know about campus diversity often comes down to a desire to belong. 

“How can you belong if you don’t really see someone like you…that isn’t from a similar background?”  he asked. “Those are many of the things that contribute to students selecting a college or university but also their retention and progression towards graduation.” 

Meaghan Arena, vice president for enrollment management, marketing, and student retention at the University of Southern Maine, noted that the prospective students she deals with daily “want to see themselves on campus.” 

Her admissions advisors are often asked directly by students and their families about whether the campus is “welcoming and inclusive.” The question, Arena noted, “makes a lot of sense because they tend to be more successful when they feel welcome and included and a part of an institution.” 

Elton Lin, CEO of the college admissions consulting and counseling firm Ilumin Education, said, “I think students on a very basic, existential level are just asking: ‘Are there students like me?’ Whether that is ethnic background or interest. They can find those communities online and being able to find those communities on campus is increasingly more important for students.”

Jennifer Jessie, a college admissions consultant who goes by Jenn The Tutor, agreed. 

“For Black students/Latinx students, they aren’t just looking for diversity, they’re looking for people that look like them,” said Jessie. “For African American students, they aren’t just looking at Black students, they’re looking at how many students are descended from slaves and how many students are immigrants. Latinx students are looking for students from their particular region.” 

Lin pointed out that apps like ZeeMee, a platform that connects prospective students at a particular school with similar interests, can help affirmatively answer the question that there are other students like them.  

Messaging 

Due to the desire on the part of prospective students to know whether the college or university they’re considering embraces diversity and inclusion, many institutions are now assessing whether their marketing strategies are up to the task. 

To prepare advisors to have conversations about campus diversity with prospective students, the University of Southern Maine offers them diversity-based training and professional development opportunities. This includes providing regular updates on DEI initiatives, as well as announcements about new identity-based student clubs.

“They will do their research,” Ren said of students. One of the easiest ways admissions leaders can show prospective students that their campus is diverse, she added, is to have an easily accessible list of student clubs, like LGBTQ and multicultural groups, on their website. 

She pointed to a student she recently worked with who felt that Boston University would be a good fit after finding out about a multicultural student group as proof that prospective students are interested in knowing what clubs will be available to them.  

Prospective students also look closely at the pictures in marketing material. 

“Do the students look like me? Will I find people that I’ll fit in with?” Ren said. 

Sarah Lawrence College does just as Ren advised. The institution ensures that various campus communities are highlighted through its website and marketing materials, Gayles said. 

“We really talk about and make sure our publications highlight the rich community that we really do have here,” said Arena about Southern Maine’s approach. 

Fleming explained that students currently have a “don’t show me, tell me” mindset regarding marketing diversity. For that reason, Old Dominion University attempts to show its diversity through words and actions and meet students where they are. 

“When it comes to our publications, we want to make sure we’re capturing the full breadth of our diversity here on campus,” said Fleming. “Not only are we looking at racial and ethnic diversity, but we also want to identify gender diversity. We’re talking about diversity going beyond those traditional areas.” 

Sarah Lawrence College showcases its commitment to DEI through its “Spring Collective” and “Fall Collective.” The events are hosted by the admissions and DEI offices for both prospective and admitted students and focus on the topic of diversity, specifically race and ethnicity but also first-generation and LGBTQ communities.

“It’s an opportunity for students of color to connect with current students of color in order to understand their experiences at Sarah Lawrence,” Gayles explained. “It’s a space where students can be very candid about the questions they have about what it’s like to be a student of color on campus.

Another way Sarah Lawrence College reaches diverse students is by going directly to community organizations that serve them. 

“We connect with those various organizations to do presentations,” Gayles noted. 

Similarly, Old Dominion highlights the diversity of the broader campus community by bringing in alumni to meet with prospective students. 

“It’s demonstrating we aren’t just talking about diversity and success with diversity but we’re able to show you where our educational experience here at the university can propel you,” said Fleming. 

The admission office at Old Dominion University has also integrated student clubs, as Ren advised, into its recruitment efforts by ensuring that representatives from the clubs are at prospective student events. 

“They’re there to give voice and space to the representation that we have here on campus,” Fleming said. 

Authenticity

Arena cautioned that institutions shouldn’t market themselves as being diverse if they aren’t. 

“The colleges should be true to themselves and communicate what it is they do well,” Lin stressed. 

Stephen Santa-Ramirez, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Buffalo’s School of Education, has expertise in issues that impact the lives of historically marginalized students, and he agreed. 

“If the Black and brown and other minoritized students on your campus can’t say that this is a diverse campus, then this isn’t a diverse campus,” said Santa-Ramirez. “You need to take it off your brochure.” 

Ren noted that many of the students she deals with are savvy when it comes to determining whether the information they receive from colleges about campus diversity is “marketing versus what is real.” She explained that they want to know that the institutions truly embrace those values. 

In addition to simply marketing their diversity, institutions are striving to infuse DEI into their DNAs.

“Folks need to really interrogate what they’re doing and put their money where their mouth is,” Santa-Ramirez emphasized. “We can say, this year, we accepted 75% of our racially minoritized applicants, but they don’t mention only 3% were able to enroll.” 

Jessie has worked with students who have been admitted to their dream institutions in terms of diversity but haven’t been able to afford to enroll. She explained that if schools want to attract diverse students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, they should support them through robust financial aid offerings. 

“It’s hard to hear all the time ‘we want diversity’ but not see the money or priorities line up,” she said.

Gayles said that a lot of work toward increasing DEI at Sarah Lawrence College has been done but acknowledged that “there’s a lot of work that needs to continue to happen.” 

The college is actively trying to diversify its faculty “so that students are taking classes with faculty who look like them and have similar backgrounds,” she noted. 

Old Dominion University is strengthening the way it reaches out to prospective Latino students by hiring an admissions staffer whose sole responsibility will be to meet the needs of that particular community. 

Retention

Successfully marketing campus diversity and enrolling students from diverse backgrounds is only half the battle for institutions. Once they have done so, they then need to ensure that the students feel a sense of belonging. 

Santa-Ramirez explained that students from marginalized groups often need more support. 

“This idea that you’re going to put on a flyer some Black and brown faces and say that you value diversity isn’t enough. You need to have support processes in place when the students enroll at your school,” said Santa-Ramirez. “We have to think about persistence. Now that they’re there, what are you doing to keep them here? Retention is huge. People need to be aware of the needs and wants of these minoritized communities.” 

Sarah Lawrence College recently hired a dean for first-year students who is tasked with, among other things, focusing on cultivating a sense of belonging.

“Ensuring that students feel like the college is where they’re supposed to be; they were admitted for a reason; they’re there for a reason,” Gayles said of the new role. Cultivating that sense has taken the form of programming that relates to resources and the facilitation of connections among students. 

Old Dominion University’s Living-Learning & Theme Communities, which allow students with similar interests to live together, is one of the ways the institution can foster a sense of belonging and boost retention. Boston University has a similar program that allows students to choose roommates based on varied interests or backgrounds.

“We really want them to integrate themselves into the campus community,” Fleming said. “That means that they’re bringing their various backgrounds and eclectic experiences, their values and they’re incorporating them into their experience here and sharing them with other students.”

Addressing retention at the source, the University of Southern Maine is looking into its data to see who leaves the school and why. 

“For example, when we look at our data, we can see which groups of students leave,” Arena said. However, the data doesn’t indicate why they left. “This spring we are embarking on a series of student focus groups—people who have left us and people who are still with us—to figure out why.” 

Aila Boyd

Aila Boyd

Reporter

Aila Boyd is a Virginia-based journalist and educator. As a journalist, she has written for and edited daily and weekly newspapers and magazines. She has taught English at a number of colleges and universities and holds an MFA in writing.


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