Why Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) degrees are on the rise in colleges

  • A growing number of colleges offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • The trend is in response to increased demand for DEI experts – and comes amid backlash against diversity initiatives.
  • Program courses vary but tend to be interdisciplinary, covering topics ranging from history to business management.

Anyfern González, an undergraduate student at Bentley University near Boston, changed majors four times before settling into a relatively new degree program.

Its chosen curriculum is that offered at a few other institutions: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, or DEI.

The term has become controversial. More recently, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis proposed scrapping DEI programs from public universities in the state on the grounds that they are too ideological. But at their core, advocates say, these programs aim to help different groups achieve representation, participation and a sense of belonging.

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“I’m finally in a place now, especially with my major, where I’m settling in, feeling comfortable in the spaces I walk into,” says González, a senior citizen of Dominican descent who grew up in a low-income neighborhood. household in Salem, Massachusetts. She is the first in her family to go to university.

Bentley’s DEI degree programs—a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts—were the first such undergraduate offerings in the nation.

Amid the growing demand for DEI experts in everything from education to finance, the number of colleges offering undergraduate and graduate DEI programs has increased. According to a USA TODAY analysis, at least half a dozen colleges across the country offer DEI degree programs or soon will.

There has also been an explosion of DEI certificate programs, which tend to be less rigorous and narrower. Dozens of colleges offer minors or concentrations with titles like “diversity studies,” from Texas State University to Michigan Tech to the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. And more than 100 schools now offer programs categorized as cross-cultural or multicultural diversity studies, up from about 50 in 2012, according to research from consultancy Eduventures.

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Attract new students, make colleges more welcoming

Complete data has not been collected on the number of colleges offering DEI degrees, let alone the outcomes of these new niche programs. Some observers, including executive coach and DEI expert James Rodgers, fear they are little more than a superficial – but lucrative – response to the racial reckoning of 2020.

But participants and advocates say such degrees make perfect sense in a society plagued by identity-related conflict and full of opportunities for professionals trained to bridge the gaps.

González, who will be the first Bentley student to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in DEI, enrolled in the program shortly after hearing about it. In her freshman and sophomore year, she struggled to adapt to Bentley’s campus culture, but has thrived since switching to a DEI major. She has taken courses on managing diversity in the workplace, the history of racism in the United States, and how people’s identities intersect.

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“It was a discovery for me to just find my voice,” says González, who interned at a consulting firm doing DEI work, learning about the options she could pursue with her degree. She also learned about the importance of company culture and how she could become someone who shapes it.

Gary David, professor of sociology at Bentley University

Gary David, a sociology professor at Bentley who helped develop the school’s DEI programs, says one of the reasons for creating the major was to enroll new types of students. “We can’t attract different people if we’re in the same place we’ve been,” he recalls, arguing.

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DEI diplomas meet a demand for specific skills

But the creation of DEI degrees also responds to the growing demand for people with explicit expertise in the field. LinkedIn data shows that between 2015 and 2020, roles related to diversity and inclusion grew by 71% globally. Other research shows a steep rise since 2020. According to data from Indeed.com, for example, DEI job openings increased by 123% between May and September 2020.

People often assume that “anyone can do (DEI) work or that we don’t need this function,” says Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Leaders in Education. superior. But she says more and more employers are realizing they need to improve their DEI if they want to be successful – and that requires specific skills. According to Granberry Russell, membership in his organization has increased by 60% since 2020.

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“You come into the program thinking, ‘I have a certain level of expertise,’ or ‘I have the vocabulary,'” says Darwin Conner, who recently earned a master’s degree focused on DEI leadership from Tufts University. in suburban Boston and now serves as the director of diversity at a New York law firm. “And when you get there, and you start reading and interacting with your classmates, you realize how much you don’t know.”

The University of St. Thomas, which has campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, is in the process of launching a DEI master’s program. “It’s time for us as a society to move from empathy to action,” says Eddy Rojas, executive vice president and provost of the Catholic University.

“Taking action is knowing what diversity really means, knowing the power of diversity and how to leverage it.”

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It’s an interdisciplinary feat, and the St. Thomas curriculum will reflect that, Rojas says, drawing from eight departments across three colleges. It will also strive to keep tuition fees low – as low as $7,500 per year for the average student.

DEI “is about saving lives”

Leaders at St. Thomas and other schools say their goal, consistent with their interdisciplinary nature, is to attract a wide range of students — not just those aspiring to become diversity leaders. And they want to attract students outside of the self-selected groups that tend to enroll in diversity-related programs — namely, women, people of color, and those with progressive viewpoints.

Avoiding an echo chamber is essential for these programs to have real impact, according to Rodgers, who co-authored a 2022 book on how to conduct authentic and transformative DEI training.

For Rodgers, DEI initiatives in the corporate world too often fail, in large part because there is little concrete consensus and understanding of what “diversity” and “inclusion” mean.

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Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, agrees. “Sometimes these (DEI) positions become more performative than practical,” he says.

Such challenges are precisely why degree programs are needed, say leaders and advocates.

“For me, DEI is really a matter of life and death,” says Silas Pinto, who co-directs the Tufts program, which now includes “justice” in its name. Pinto highlights how systemic oppression affects some people’s health and livelihoods.

“It’s not just a kumbaya framework, which involves holding hands by the fire. It’s mostly about saving lives and doing it intentionally.

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or awong@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

USA Today

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