Amidst fervent attacks on affirmative action and the overlying concept of diversity, Western should redouble its efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate a diverse student body.

Precious Allen checks people into Western’s 2022 Lu’au, put on by the Asian and Pacific Islanders Club. Photo: Alex Pedersen

Diversity under fire

Back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a significant blow to affirmative action — pronouncing it illegal for selective colleges and universities to consider race as a factor in their admissions processes.

The decision won’t meaningfully impact Western, which is considered a “least selective” college and utilizes a holistic admissions process, but that didn’t stop Western’s top leadership from condemning the decision and reaffirming their commitment to the principle of diversity in an all-campus email statement:

“Having a student body that includes individuals with a broad range of academic and life experiences, skills, interests, and identities aligns with our institution’s values and our role as a regional public university. And, perhaps as importantly, a diverse student body enriches our community and the lives of all our students,” read a portion of that missive, sent June 30.

Western’s president Brad Baca, who was appointed in July 2022, proudly speaks to his Hispanic heritage, and his background as a first-generation college student.

“As a first-generation college graduate, I would not be where I am today without the transformational impacts of higher education,” Pres. Baca told the Gunnison County Commissioners this June. “That was only made possible by the generosity of a lot of people, the institution and the donors that supported that in terms of making it affordable for me.”

Despite landmark successes, it’s fair to say that the broad concept of diversity, encapsulating people’s race, gender identity, nationality, sexuality, geographic background, socioeconomic status, and religion (as well as other facets), is under substantive attack in America. In lieu of considering these experiences and backgrounds, some would argue for a purely meritocratic system. 

The issue, of course, is that very little is truly meritocratic in America, where practices like legacy admissions remain alive (although universities like Wesleyan have done away with the practice in the wake of the affirmative action ruling). 

Still, large private donations and backroom schmoozing can secure coveted seats in classrooms of some of the world’s most elite universities, which can then translate to highly lucrative post-graduate opportunities in the private sector. 

In the fallout of the landmark court decision against affirmative action — and amid a Republican primary where “anti-wokeness” is the order of the day, the notion of diversity in higher education is in forced retreat.

Yet I would argue that creating a hospitable environment for a diverse student body is more critical than ever, as America becomes increasingly ethnically diverse

In particular, Hispanic college enrollment is reaching new heights, rising from 1.5 million students in 2000 to a new high of 3.8 million in 2019, according to Pew Research.

Colorado’s Hispanic community, which comprises 21 percent of the state’s population, should be a recruitment priority as Western seeks the dual aims of diversify its student body and remaining financially viable.

Rebuilding the social fabric

But what is the true benefit of diversity in 2023, at a time when the majority of Americans disapprove of considering race in admissions and hiring processes?

Facing real, systemic threats to our country’s future like climate change, COVID, and increasing income inequality, Americans have become more anxious.

Complementing this high anxiety is the fact that faith in our public and private institutions, our democratic system, and in the future of our country is waning. 

And while many of the trust issues Americans have probably stem from the feeling that we are all competing for limited resources in a hyper-capitalistic world, it’s likely that fundamental social disconnects play a role in the fracturing of American optimism.

Repairing that faith and shared trust must include developing meaningful relationships with people of different backgrounds, including sexual orientation, race, nationality, and religion. 

The United States is unquestionably one of the most diverse countries in the world. More than 67 million Americans spoke a language other than English at home in 2019, more than one-fifth of our nation’s population. 

And yet according to research conducted back in 2013, 40 percent of white Americans had zero non-white friends. That’s rather alarming, especially considering that more than 40 percent of the U.S. populace identifies as either non-white, Hispanic or both, per the most recent U.S. Census data. 

The lines of racial and socioeconomic segregation in our country run incredibly deep, and include where people live, what media they consume, and often, where they go to school — beginning in elementary school. This educational siloing contributes to an increasingly fractious national identity. 

We cannot possibly understand the perspectives of people we hardly know. Without significant and meaningful exposure to people of other races, religions, and personal backgrounds, we are susceptible to caricatured stereotypes and outright propaganda that turn people against each other, destroying our social fabric. 

Studies indicate that when people don’t have real-world experience with people of different racial identities, they “tend to rely on media stereotypes to formulate ideas about people outside of their own race.” 

That’s a major problem, as media representation of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans has been, until very recently, almost entirely negative. Americans consume about 11 hours of media every day, and it’s likely the average person has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of depictions of various non-white racial groups as dangerous criminals, lazy immigrants, or unemployed alcoholics.

These depictions are offensive in their gross inaccuracy, but over time they can have real, lasting impacts on how people view other citizens of this country. The TV show “24” is infamously credited with convincing many Americans of the efficacy of torture in a post 9/11 era, despite overwhelming evidence these barbarous techniques do not actually work.

Similarly, popular media, until very recently, has told very monolithic stories about different races, cultures, and religions in the U.S, shaping the view of many Americans who have little to no meaningful interactions with people who differ from them.

Unwinding years of negative media portrayals is a tall task, and one that necessitates that universities, as public, intellectual spaces, rise to serve as cultural counterweights, reducing animus and promoting understanding. 

Gateway to prosperity: The power of a college education 

Admitting a more diverse student body is not just about broadening student’s perspectives, but a key driver in attaining a fairer, more equitable society.

College graduates can expect to earn significantly more than their high school graduates over their lifetimes, roughly $450,000 more for women and $650,000 more for men, which alludes to another serious issue: The gender pay gap.

Attaining that additional income is necessary for Black and Brown Americans to make serious progress towards closing racial wealth gaps, which are astoundingly large. The average white household in America has a net worth roughly six times higher than the average Black household

Recent research suggests that the gap won’t be closed via higher education alone, but granting students from disadvantaged communities’ access to low-cost, quality education opens up possibilities for future graduates to excel, while combating an all too frequent barrier that is uniquely American: Oppressive student loans that play a critical role in keeping Black and Brown students from getting ahead financially. 

It’s true that college degrees are not worth what they once were, in large part because many more people are obtaining them. About 15 million Americans were enrolled in an undergraduate program in 2022, nearly five percent of the total population. Attaining a collegiate degree is no longer a near-guarantee of economic success in a cutthroat global economy.

Yet colleges remain an economic engine capable of springboarding graduates into a better life. That opportunity, once reserved almost entirely for young, white men from rich families, must be afforded to all qualified students.  

Western strives towards progress 

As it stands, Western isn’t exactly a bastion of racial diversity. Niche places Western 18th out of 20 colleges in Colorado on their diversity metric. But that’s not to say Western isn’t trying — and fighting an uphill battle due to its remote location and small community. 

Public colleges should do what they can to select classes which are representative of their states, granting the transformative opportunity for higher education to a broad range of society.

On campus, Western’s Multicultural Center fosters a sense of community and culture-sharing, offering campus-wide events put on by groups like the Black Student Alliance (which puts on Soul Food Night), Asian and Pacific Islanders Club (which throws an annual Lūʻau), and the Amigos Club (which celebrates Cinco De Mayo and Carnaval, among other holidays). 

Recently, Western added the Multicultural Awareness Scholarship, which doles out about 25 awards of at least $1,000 to students who “demonstrate a contribution or promotion of diversity on Western’s campus.”

Western is adopting a number of other strategies to increase diversity and lower barriers to education, including emphasizing affordability and launching its Adult Degree Completion program.

Plus, under the university’s new strategic plan, students may soon be allowed to complete “upside-down” degrees, beginning their education with technical courses and certifications and progressing towards a four-year degree. 

These innovations should be celebrated and expanded as the marketplace for higher education continues to become more competitive. 

Systemic barriers to success

But another key to building out a more diverse university is lowering the cost of housing, a significant issue for both prospective and current students. The average price of a one-bedroom in Gunnison sits at a prohibitive $1,400, and on-campus student housing ran about $900 for a one-bedroom in the 2021-2022 academic year.

High cost of living discourages students of lesser means from any racial or geographic background from making the move to Gunnison. It also presents real barriers to retaining students who’ve already enrolled with Western. 

A shortage of housing has plagued Western for decades and has led some students to sleep in their vehicles and post up at Hartman Rocks, a last resort that community and university leaders should be ashamed of. The issue has only been exacerbated by the Zoom boom and the accompanying rise in housing demand and costs up in Crested Butte. 

Western must also refine its response to incidents that send blaring messages to students of color that they are unwanted, and possibly even in danger. In numerous incidents between 2020 and 2023, unidentified students have conveyed racist and hateful messages via graffiti and other means, including hanging a Black elk in an underclassmen dorm. 

These incidents indicate a serious issue with bigotry and cannot be tolerated. Hateful incidents must be met with swift condemnation. Offenders, if identified, should be promptly expelled, sending a clear message that discrimination and hate will not fly at Western.

The takeaway

Diversity matters, for a whole host of reasons: For the exchange of different ideas, to unite a deeply divided country and combat rising racist sentiment, and to launch a wide range of students into the world, empowered to find success and rise into leadership and mentorship roles for the students of tomorrow. 

The college years represent a seminal time, as students leave the home and are often exposed to a new place, new subjects of study, and experiment with different belief systems and ways of life. 

For many who hail from lily-white suburbs or small towns (including myself), attending college may be the first time they meaningfully interact with others of different races, members of the LGBTQIA community who are publicly “out”, and people who practice different religions. That exposure, and the collegial dialogue it can create, is important for developing a fuller sense of America. 

Enrolling a diverse student body enhances the educational experience for all students, particularly as Western is moving to make studies in diversity and equity part of its general education core with its newly adopted strategic plan, which will guide the university through 2028.

Furnishing a quality, public liberal arts education at a reasonable-ish cost is one of the strongest tools we have to create a more equitable world. 

The concept of diversity is worth defending, and Western’s leadership should be commended for doing so swiftly with their post-ruling letter to campus back in June, which argued that the Supreme Court’s recent decision would “diminish enrollment of students from underrepresented backgrounds at many institutions which will hinder economic mobility, workforce preparation, and movement towards the creation of a more equitable and just society.”

Now, it’s time to see the university back those commendable words with definitive action, growing Western’s community with diverse students eager to learn.