Hanover’s 2023 national higher education diversity, equity, and inclusion student survey illustrates how identity impacts college student perceptions and well-being.
Heightened political polarization threatens to eclipse many higher education diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. As a result of these heightened tensions, Hanover Research conducted a survey in June 2023 of over 1,000 undergraduate students (ages 18–24) in the United States to understand their perceptions of DEI at their institutions. The survey findings highlight how student experiences vary widely based on their identities and physical and emotional needs.
While the survey results showcase valuable trendlines at the national level, we at Hanover Research believe higher education leaders must attend to students’ particular needs at each campus. Here are three meaningful insights from the survey, that stand out to us, to help you navigate your institution’s DEI efforts.
Higher Education Diversity Initiatives: More than a Passing Trend
Most students believe their institutions support fostering a culture that promotes DEI. Despite this perceived support of leadership, one third of students still feel negatively singled out, and/or feel like they must regularly change themselves to fit in with their peers. In fact, Hanover found an 8% decrease in the number of students who believe their institution leaders actually place importance on DEI programs, compared to 2021.
If students cite college leadership’s positive attitudes toward DEI, why do many students still feel alienated? Some students may feel as though leaders view DEI as a fad, rather than a lasting set of principles. In other words, some institutions may have created a culturally tolerant environment, but certain students may not always feel expressly included, supported, and valued.
Proactive, Data-Driven Ways to Measure DEI Climate
In order to create a more inclusive and accessible campus environment, institutions must proactively and warmly invite all students to engage in cultural exchange and advocate for their unique needs. However, understanding what students, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, need can only happen when your institution collects data about the current state of your campus DEI climate. Climate surveys are an excellent way to gain better insights on students’ (and employees’) identities, perceptions, and needs. We recommend the following tips when measuring higher education diversity, equity, and inclusion climate:
- Create a standardized plan or procedure for measuring DEI climate, so your entire campus community understands the key purposes and objectives of the survey.
- Student surveys must use inclusive language, particularly around gender, sexuality, and race/ethnicity so that no student feels inclined to skip questions or answer inaccurately because aren’t represented.
- Embrace all feedback, even if it’s critical or negative. Don’t shy away from harsh realities. Understanding where the key problem areas are located is the only way to make progress or improvements.
Tolerance is a great start, but belonging is what truly matters to achieve student success. Deepen your awareness of student belonging with this insightful blog.
Understanding Disparities by Student Identity is Key
Experiences vary by identity. In 2023, some cultures, experiences, and identities seem under attack in the face of political aggression. Opponents of DEI programs often claim that these programs are unnecessary because we have already achieved an acceptable level of equity or equality within higher education. Data, however, illustrates that students of color, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities don’t always feel accepted, and in turn, are not offered the same opportunities to achieve academic success.
At the national level, Black or African American students as well as students who identified as other persons of color in our survey express less confidence than other groups in how well their institutions meet the needs of diverse populations. Similarly, these two demographics were least likely to feel a sense of community and belonging. At only 62% and 65% respectively, these student groups are less likely to agree that their institution has adequate resources for traditionally under-resourced groups.
Similarly, LGBTQIA+ students report significantly lower rates of a sense of belonging and community, as well as feeling that they are valued, respected, and welcomed. 40% of LGBTQIA+ students feel negatively singled out, outside of the classroom. It is also important to note that research indicates that trans and nonbinary, or gender non-conforming students are at an even higher risk of alienation.
Celebrating Higher Education Diversity in All Areas of Student Life
Now more than ever, it’s important for institutions to bolster higher education diversity, equity, and inclusion opportunities for students to express their whole selves, to achieve academic success. Institutions must promote a culture of shared values and the pursuit of mutual understanding both inside and outside of class time. For example, outside of curricula, leadership should encourage employees to provide explicit support and protection to cultural affinity groups. This supports marginalized students by helping them find peer-to-peer support and community without fear of negative repercussions or harassment.
Inside the classroom, only 45% of students agree their courses include thinking about events from another person’s point of view. To share more diverse perspectives, educators should guide their students to deepen their understanding of others’ struggles and historic accomplishments. Providing culturally inclusive instruction may help quell misinformation and empower their students to become effective leaders. Additionally, institutions should aim to provide accessible and diverse professional development opportunities to foster culturally responsive teaching methods, reducing unconscious bias.
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Student Support Systems Must Include DEI Solutions
While about three-quarters of students agree there are adequate resources on their campuses for career services, registration assistance, and financial aid, when it comes to other support services, students rate lower scores. For example, fewer students are satisfied with their institutions’ childcare resources, military and veteran services, transportation, disability services, and mental health support. This lack of adequate support likely contributes to students with disabilities feeling less valued than their non-disabled peers, only 65% compared to the overall 75%.
When it comes to acts of harassment or discrimination, only 68% of students say they know how to report such an incident on their campus and just 66% say they would feel comfortable reporting it. In fact, when it comes to trusting that their institution would respond appropriately to a harassment or discrimination report, 35% either disagree or aren’t sure. While discrimination and harassment may affect any student, institutions should use a DEI framework to identify which students may be most at risk for adverse experiences. By identifying how harassment directly relates to identity, institutions may more easily manage the factors that perpetuate identity-motivated incidents.
Promoting Safety and Accessibility for Vulnerable Students
Since a lack of sufficient support in these areas could present significant barriers for marginalized students, college and university leaders should pay attention to how well these services contribute to student success. Keep DEI at the center of your institution’s student support services and be sure to take the following measures:
- Increase publicity around incident reporting policies and processes with students to reinforce what appropriate steps would be taken to ensure justice, accountability, and recovery after an incident of harassment or discrimination.
- Provide training to faculty, staff, and student leaders on how to provide guidance and aid to students surviving identity-motivated incidents.
- Survey all students who stop out or drop out of their studies before reaching their educational goals to better understand the primary drivers of student attrition and how it relates to their identity, lifestyle, and/or disability.
Help ensure your students achieve their academic goals with these Student Retention Strategies in Higher Education.
How to Ensure 2023-24 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Success
With one third of students feeling negatively singled out, institutions still have more work to do to ensure all students feel accepted on their campuses. The good news, however, is that 70% of students still cite supportive attitudes of their leadership toward DEI efforts. Supportive attitudes certainly contribute to a positive academic experience. However, millions of students also need institutions to take more direct action to ensure they are able to thrive.
To continue making DEI progress, higher education leaders must commit to collecting student and employee sentiments, measuring disparities in data, and applying those insights into support programming. By utilizing evidence-backed research and institution-wide strategies, institutions can address and close student equity gaps, regardless of political pressure to regress or maintain the status quo.
All students need measurable action to promote well-being and success, read the entire 2023 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey to learn more.