Diversity and multiculturalism are both very important to your college experiences, and to the colleges themselves. If you're interested in making sure that any college or university you visit has made diversity a priority, then you should read this article to find out what to look for.

If you're looking to get as much out of your college experience as you can, particularly in terms of the breadth of your acquaintances and experiences, you may not have to look far. Most colleges strive to create diverse and exciting campus environments, and equate diversity of all kinds with excitement, challenging learning settings, and personal growth opportunities for all students. In fact, creating diversity is so important for some schools that it is often an integral part of their mission statements, and many colleges and universities go the extra mile to create a diverse and multicultural environment through their recruiting efforts.

Importance of diversity to colleges and universities

Many public and private schools maintain that diversity is essential for the fulfillment of their mission as educational institutions, and that a multicultural campus and the provision of education to all sectors of American society is crucial to national development.

Take a look at the mission statement, statement of educational philosophy, and other statements of purpose which colleges celebrate on their Web sites and in other college information materials. We can almost guarantee that you will nearly always find a statement about the importance of diversity to the institution.

Diversity benefits all students
Today's selective colleges seek to enroll a diverse class comprising many talented individuals. College guides often offer statistics to allow students to see how diverse the student population is.

The basic idea is that students learn a great deal from their interactions in and out of class, and that learning and living among students from various racial, ethnic, cultural, geographic, socioeconomic, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, with a wide array of academic, extracurricular, and social interests, will benefit every student and the college as a whole. Students' exposure to diverse views and individuals will provide them with greater personal development and challenge, broaden their perspectives, and increase their knowledge of the world as it really is. College info typically promotes this idea as a selling point for the school.

Most educators agree that diversity benefits all students, but there is, of course, a great deal of disagreement on how to achieve such an environment and whether multiculturalism, for example, should take precedence over admission to a college based solely on merit. (Of course, how to measure that merit often sparks additional debates!)

The role of affirmative action
Recent Supreme Court decisions and current events (such as a recently passed ballot initiative in Michigan which bans the use of racial, ethnic, and other preferences by public agencies including colleges and universities), continue to change the landscape of what is called affirmative action. Colleges continue to try to achieve their diversity goals without assigning points to or establishing quotas for students from particular backgrounds.

In lieu of identifying racial or ethnic identities of applicants, there has been a trend toward looking at socio-economic status and other indicators such as being a first-generation college student, being an immigrant, or having overcome significant family or personal challenges. This situation will continue to evolve, and is beyond the control of current college-bound students. However, for students from underrepresented racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds, there are some things to keep in mind as you consider your college search.

Recruiting realities
First, multicultural recruiting is alive and well, especially at private liberal arts colleges and universities. They are actively seeking to enroll more African American, Hispanic, and Native American students in particular, as members of these groups are currently underrepresented in higher education. College guides might offer insight into schools that have programs designed to draw in diverse students.

Take a look at colleges like Bates, with its Prologue program, and you will see efforts to bring talented minority students to campus, introduce them to the concept of a liberal arts education, and persuade them that Bates is a welcoming and exciting place to enroll.

Now, add to that a financial aid commitment to help students from lower income families, and you will see that colleges like Bates, as well as elite universities like Princeton, Harvard, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and Stanford, are putting a lot of money on the table to help lower income students attend college and graduate without much debt.

Many schools are also committed to recruiting students in the field. Colleges and universities solicit applications from students they meet in inner city communities, on Native American reservations, in the rural South, among immigrant Hispanic communities in the West, and all over the country where they might identify "strivers" who are interested in and capable of taking advantage of a selective college education, even when they might be the first in their family to attend college.

How multicultural recruiting affects your college search

Depending on your background, colleges may take personal challenges you've faced into account, and it could give you an advantage when decision time rolls around. However, your academic record is still important and, along with your standardized test scores (ACT/SAT), will be interpreted in relation to where you have attended high school and the advantages, or lack thereof, with which you have grown up.

Colleges won't seek to admit you if they don't feel you have a sufficient academic background or the personal skills to handle their program, although there are some that will provide additional academic support, counseling, and social or peer resources to help you prepare for and adjust to college and campus life. You can check the college information provided to see what services they offer.

Students with diverse backgrounds should include a broad range of schools in their college search; look carefully for diversity or multicultural recruiting, admission, and scholarship programs on college Web sites; and try to take advantage of multicultural campus weekends, local fairs or meetings, and other opportunities to explore college environments. There are many choices available to you.

By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.