A study published in the Review of Educational Research last week suggested that “positive climates” within academic institutions contributed to narrowing achievement gaps among students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. The authors included the University of Southern California’s Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education, and Hadass Moore, a Ph.D. student studying cultural diversity in the education system, among other topics pertaining to identity. The study emphasized the fact that more investment should be made in creating an inclusive campus climate.
Astor, Moore and their co-authors analyzed 78 studies looking into the relationship between classroom climate, academic achievement and socioeconomic statuses of students from 2000 to 2015.
“Our findings suggest that by promoting a positive climate, schools can allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socioeconomic inequalities, and enable more social mobility,” Astor wrote.
The different experiences of students of all identities, ranging from gender identity and sexual orientation to race and ethnicity, affect their academic needs and learning experiences. As the study suggests, when academic institutions acknowledge and address aspects of students’ identities and invest in positive, inclusive climates, this results in real benefits for their students. Positive campus climates for diverse student bodies, for instance, could include diverse staff and faculty to whom students of all backgrounds are able to relate and connect, the accessibility of opportunities for all and financial investment in reducing the economic burden of attending university for students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, investing in campus programs and cultural education initiatives to mitigate everyday microaggressions targeting students of marginalized groups and inducing anxiety and struggles with mental health have substantially affected academic performance.
Within academic environments, struggles that may on the surface seem minimal, such as difficulty finding the “proper” bathroom to use or not being able to afford menstrual products (addressed by a recent initiative at Brown University this year), can often pose undue burdens on the mental health of students and affect their academic performances. Microaggressions can also exist in everyday dialogue between students, not as a result of malicious intent, but often privilege or ignorance, and universities could foster more positive and inclusive social environments by investing in programs promoting sensitivity, awareness and education.
The measure of any top-tier learning institution should be the effort it puts into offering students of all backgrounds an enriching, welcoming collegiate experience. When academic institutions prioritize and invest in creating inclusive atmospheres which address the various backgrounds of their students, everyone benefits. On a purely scholastic level, investing in a positive climate is not only to the benefit of students of marginalized groups, but also the administration who benefit from the educational achievements of their student body.
Investing in positive campus climates promotes the very diversity that institutions evaluating and ranking universities prize. For instance, USC was ranked 15th in the nation by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, in no small part due to the diversity of its student body, from its impressive population of students of color to the high proportion of Pell Grant-eligible and first generation students in its undergraduate student body.
To those who are not sold on investing in a positive campus climate that welcomes students of marginalized groups and invests in bridging socioeconomic divides, for its moral implications and the many enriching cultural exchanges this would heed, there is no denying that investing in a positive campus climate would boost university prestige, and, as the study suggests, academic excellence. If institutions such as U.S. News & World Report or the Wall Street Journal are not already taking campus climate into account as they evaluate American universities, they certainly should, as campus climate speaks to diversity at an institution more than mere numbers and proportions to boast about, as well as how much the institution genuinely values diversity.
Last year, the Undergraduate Student Government released a resolution on campus climate meant to acknowledge and address hostilities and identity-related struggles of the school’s student body. The resolution resulted in collaboration between students and faculty to pursue various initiatives on campus climate that are still being explored. Campus climate and the experiences of students of marginalized groups are unfortunately deeply rooted in ingrained societal attitudes, prejudices, and privilege, and, as a result, can be difficult to combat directly.
But as the study by Astor and others indicates, the benefits precipitated by a positive campus climate are worth pursuing and investing in.