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10 January 2013

Race, Proportionality, and the Liberal Arts Institution

I'm working with some colleagues and students on research involving mission differentiation. Essentially, state university systems need to have their campuses offer different types of education. California was the first state to really do this in a serious manner. Here in Georgia, there was a similar push a few decades ago. Part of that push resulted in Georgia College (GC), where I work, becoming the state's sole designated public liberal arts institution. This meant (in theory if not practice) that GC could cap growth to protect the traditional liberal arts experience, including smaller class sizes and smaller student-to-teacher ratios (again, in theory if not practice). Our research looks at changes in student diversity related to mission shift.

In conversations about our research, something dawned on me: smaller class sizes are bound to compound the experience of race for students apart from campus diversity. Think about it this way. Large classes mean that diversity is more obvious. 13 black students in a 100-person classroom would be proportional and noticeable. Small classes, however, like those in liberal arts institutions, hide that diversity. 1 black student in a 10-person classroom, while still proportional, feels a lot different. As a student of color in our program put it, looking around a classroom and noting "I'm the only one," is a world away from "Oh, there's another one." Our human brains process absolute numbers better than statistical proportionality. (Just ask the students in my statistics class!)

What does all this mean? Despite efforts to make our campuses demographically representative of the larger population, the experience for minority students could still be marginalizing if classroom sizes (i.e. samples) are intentionally limited. This is not to argue that the answer is larger class sizes, only that discussions of campus diversity and minority recruitment and retention need to bring other considerations to the fore at smaller/liberal arts colleges.

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