It's been noted, for years now, that much of the racial and ethnic diversity at top-tier universities involves upper- and upper-middle-class minorites: the sons and daughters of black doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers mingling with the sons and daughters of white doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers.
Although I believe that racial diversity is intrinsically valuable (it's surely better to have a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from different backgrounds than a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from the same background), this particular rap against college diversity programs does highlight the limited and limiting ways in which we often talk about diversity.
RU does not have the racial or ethnic diversity of the institution where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and neither does it have the racial or ethnic diversity of the big urban university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. But it's more racially diverse than I would have expected (given its small-town, semi-rural location)--and it's phenomenally diverse in other ways: there are street-wise students from our state's biggest city, students who grew up in farm families, students who are military veterans, students who work full-time, students who have children. Most our students are traditional-aged, if you raise the upper end of "traditional" to 25 or 27, and most of our students live on campus. But a large minority commute, a large minority are transfer students from community colleges, and a small but visible minority are over 35. The range of economic backgrounds is also striking: I have students who take unpaid internships in Boston and New York, and students who are piecing together their tuition by cleaning houses.
And if we believe that diversity is its own good--that all students benefit from it, not just the ones whom diversity outreach is trying to give a leg up in the world--then surely we should define "diversity" as broadly as possible.
But of course, the problem is how to get a student body that's both cohesive enough and diverse enough. If you're an Ivy, you can construct a freshman class with whatever racial and ethnic balance you want; you can have students from every state in the union and most of the countries in the globe; and you can even have students from an impressively large range of family income levels (it doesn't often get mentioned, but the Ivies are much better on economic diversity than most private universities). But what you can't have, if you're an elite, residential institution, is students who vary tremendously in ability or preparation level, in age, or in domestic arrangements. Likewise, the more truly diverse a campus is, the less cohesive its student population is likely to be.
And maybe that's not a solvable problem. But looking back I'm struck by how homogeneous my own classroom environments were, when compared with those of my current students. And perhaps as a result, it took me a long time, post-college, to make friends with people who weren't my exact age (people more than two years older or younger just seemed to lead impossibly different lives), or with educational backgrounds unlike my own. Sure, I thought of myself as having an intriguingly diverse group of friends--but by virtue of being the same age and having attended the same institution, we were much more alike than different. So when I wound up with an officemate who was living with her parents on Long Island, and whose boyfriend was divorced with a kid? I liked her, and we had fun at work. But I couldn't imagine her life, and I probably didn't try very hard.
Maybe it takes a while, for everyone, to appreciate or take an interest in people significantly unlike themselves, and maybe colleges and universities can only do so much. And maybe being exposed to some kind of diversity helps one to negotiate other kinds later on. But I do wish we talked more about, and valued more actively, a fuller range of student and life experiences.