Does Online Education Offer Diversity in College?

Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas for admission as an undergraduate student, but was not accepted due to her race. So she sued the University of Texas in Federal District court in Austin. What makes this case so interesting are two things: 1) This is not a historical case that took place in the 50s or 60s, but rather is a present day occurrence, and 2) Abigail Fisher is white.

At first glance it would seem that Ms. Fisher’s case is pretty solid given that employers, for example, cannot hire or fire based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. However, as it turns out a 2003 Supreme Court ruling (Grutter vs. Bollinger) allows colleges and universities to balance diversity by considering race when admitting students to their schools. The ruling was never meant to turn down a student solely based upon the color of his or her skin, however, it was left intentionally ambiguous to give schools more flexibility in deciding their enrollment. And although it’s not clear if Ms. Fisher was denied only because she is white, her suit puts the responsibility on the University of Texas to prove otherwise.

Can College Diversity Be Determined by Skin Color?

There’s no doubt that diversity in college is important. In a world where a global economy is now a fact of life, the job market favors those graduates who know how to navigate the business world on an international level, as this brief video points out:

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College is a place where we want to hear as many points of view as possible at a time in our lives when we’re coming to grips with who we are and who we hope to become. But is intellectual diversity (which is what we’re really talking about in reference to college) directly related to the color of one’s skin? According to Peter Wood, an anthropologist and author of the book “Diversity: The Invention of a Concept”, not always.

“The pursuit of a genuine variety of opinions that are well thought through and well grounded is essential,” writes Mr. Wood. “But that has an off-and-on, hit-or-miss connection with ethnic and racial diversity.”

So according to Mr. Wood colleges and universities should pursue intellectual diversity based upon the ideas and beliefs of the students applying, and not according to their race or ethnicity.

Fair enough, but then how does one get around that when our opinions and beliefs are directly tied to the cultures in which we grew up? A person of color who grew up poor in Mumbai is definitely going to have a different worldview than an upper-middle class white kid raised in Dallas. Without diversity programs how are you going to ensure these two cultures co-mingle during that training ground for life called college?

Can Online Education Offer an Answer?

Ironically, one of the interesting by-products to come out of online education at the college level has been diversity without the cloud of judgment. Students come together in the online classroom from a variety of cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, yet they don’t necessarily know about those differences unless a student decides to share that information. They base their opinions of one another on the comments they give during online discussions. Skin color, by nature, does not play into it.

And even though the application for online college typically does ask for the applicant’s ethnicity (usually for demographic survey use), no one has been denied acceptance because of it. In fact those demographic surveys show that online education is far more diverse than brick-and-mortar college. According to, of the 5.6 million online college students today less than half (46.6.%) are white, compared to the over 60% white students who attend traditional college.

But it’s no surprise really when you consider that the biggest reason people choose online college over brick-and-mortar is because of its convenience. A student doesn’t have to quit his or her job and relocate in order to get a college education. Plus, an online student is typically older than the kids you find on a college campus, which means he or she has lived a little bit of life, maybe had some hard knocks, and thus definitely has more of an opinion on certain subjects (especially those related to the economy and politics) than someone who just graduated high school and has never held a job or had to support themselves.

So if you’re looking for true diversity of intellect in higher education, online education really does offer a broader field. That’s not to say if you (or your children) have the opportunity to attend a brick-and-mortar college that you shouldn’t take it. It does mean, however, that if you attend an online school you aren’t experiencing any less of a diverse education than if you physically showed up to class. On the contrary, consider yourself lucky that you truly are allowed to judge your classmates by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. (Hmm…what a nice concept.)

As for Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit, a Texas judge favored the University of Texas’s position, and now Ms. Fisher’s appeal is pending a U.S. Supreme Court decision. If they choose to overturn their original 2003 ruling, it could mean the end of affirmative action in any form for college applicants. Some experts feel this will result in less diversity on college campuses, leading to a more homogenous pool of opinions and less critical thinking. What do you think?

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Online classrooms are getting a lift in techniques to allow student involvement in creative ways. So nice to have resources at your feet when it comes to the crunch.

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