How to Talk About Diversity (without offending everyone)

April 14, 2016  

Recently, we recommended to a small, liberal arts college that they discontinue their diversity and inclusion brochure. 

“Why?” they asked. “What kind of research do you have that shows it’s no longer an effective recruiting tool?”

“This isn’t a research issue, it’s a relevance issue,” we said. “And it’s 2016. Creating a separate brochure with photos of African American students as the focal point is actually the opposite of inclusivity. You’re singling them out.”

What we know about Generation Z backs this thinking up. The group of students now entering college is the most open in the nation’s history. They don’t see skin color, or even gender. Only 48 percent of Gen Z identify as exclusively heterosexual. Ethnic minorities make up 47 percent of their numbers, and they’ll be the last American generation with a Caucasian majority. So while schools are worried about having enough photos of African American and international students in their communications, it’s likely they’re offending both groups, as well as many others, in the process.

Over the years, we’ve seen a range of diversity brochures and emails from colleges and universities all over the country, and we’ve noticed a common theme. The content tends to be largely the same as audience-agnostic materials, but the photos are swapped out to reveal a stronger minority presence, and there’s a heavier emphasis on minority-focused student organizations and events.

There’s no doubt that diversity offices play a critical role in creating inclusive, relevant events and programming — and that prospective students are interested in the resources and info they provide. But there is a better way to tell these stories. So, on behalf of all future college students, we beg today’s higher ed marketing and communications professionals to think about these three things:

  1. Diversity doesn’t mean what it used to. Open your mind to the definition of diversity. It’s not just skin color, but gender, point of view, background, interests, styles, history, experiences, socioeconomic status, and more. You’re audience knows it all too well. Time to catch up.
  2. Embrace the individuality of the student body you are documenting. Choose great photos and great stories — period. Don’t worry about having three Caucasian stories, three minority stories, two international stories, and one LGBT story. A forced, planned collection of diverse students reeks of inauthenticity. This generation wants real connections with real people, and anything less turns them off.
  3. Content is a huge opportunity to share diverse viewpoints. Take advantage of it whenever you can. In a world where Gen Z creates their own content all day long, you can serve as a conduit and share it with all of your audiences. Prospective students don’t want to hear from the “voice” of the university; they want to hear from all of the voices that make up the university. That’s a big difference.

We know this is a big shift in the admissions approach for many colleges and universities, but we also know it’s incredibly important to get right. Every campus is filled with different students and their different stories, so everything you need to make this shift is right in front of you. Tell real stories. We believe real connections will quickly follow.


A version of this post originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed.