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Look Beyond the Marketing: How to Evaluate a College’s Diversity Statistics

The first institutions of higher learning were founded in America’s colonies ~140 years before the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776! Then, for much of the proceeding history, those colleges and universities shunned diversity and excluded women and students of color. Over the decades, that deprivation of equal rights to education adversely impacted millions of young people who couldn’t receive the training needed to qualify for the best and most influential careers.

Today, things have improved vastly! Institutions of higher learning are increasingly committed to the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, showcasing their efforts on websites and via marketing campaigns. Most schools now proudly list their student body demographics listing diversity statistics and related data. But do students really need to pay attention to these stats? Let’s find out!

Why colleges advertise their diversity.

DEI is rightfully cited as a valuable unique selling proposition that schools use to encourage prospective students to apply. Advertising diversity is a great way to communicate to all students that they’ll be welcomed and included on campus. But why has it become such an important trend?

In part, it’s because undergraduate college enrollment has declined over the years. This has motivated schools to rethink their marketing and express their DEI-friendliness in more eye-catching ways. The increased visibility gives students who might be on the fence about where to apply—or about even going to college—better information to use in their decision-making processes.

Schools suffer when enrollment is down, so it makes sense for them to ensure their marketing attracts the widest possible audience. As The Guardian pointed out, “colleges are a business” and, with the average four-year cost of in-state tuition at nearly $40,000, every student counts!

Looking beyond the marketing.

If a school features an amazingly diverse demographic, that doesn’t always mean it offers true equity and inclusivity. As the American Marketing Association notes, “simply increasing student diversity without addressing equity gaps may be a short-term or even harmful pursuit. Without proper structures to support the success of diverse students, increasing diversity is simply funneling more students into an environment that may not enable them to thrive.

That’s why underrepresented students need to look deeper and apply to schools where they’ll feel supported versus tokenized. Doing so will help students boost their odds of enjoying a positive school experience and achieving successful outcomes. That’s also why higher education institutions need to be authentic and real about their campus DEI stats and initiatives.

Student reviews are invaluable.

Student reviews aren’t going to paint the whole picture, and studies show that people tend to be more likely to leave negative reviews than positive ones. However, authentic student reviews are definitely an invaluable source of information about what it’s really like on campus. Here are a few sites you should be able to find honest reviews on:

Talk to current and former students.

We’re not suggesting students form their entire opinion on a school based on reviews they read online. It’s important to engage in real discussions with recent alumni or students currently attending the schools that are being considered. Such vital discussions can occur either in person, over the phone, via video chat, email, or through online forums. Just remember to cover topics related to genuine DEI experiences.

It can also be very telling to learn about alumni and what they’re up to by visiting the alumni newsletter or webpage, then reaching out to request a chat!

Campus periodicals and campus visits are insightful.

Student publications are another method of gauging the climate on campus. For example, Oregon State University’s student-run Beaver’s Digest features an article titled “‘I don’t belong here’: Students of color speak on overcoming imposter syndrome.” The piece offers valuable insights into the anxiety and insecurities students may face when a campus or program feels too homogeneous.

Whenever possible, we encourage students to do campus visits. Ideally, visits should be done when school is in session versus over the summer (when visitors are more likely to see other visitors rather than enrolled students). It’s hard to get a feel of the real campus life when school is out.

Check out third-party review sites.

Savvy students also utilize third-party college review and ranking websites like Niche, U.S. News & World Report, and for information. We think such sites are often helpful starting points when researching schools to apply to. They’re valuable for learning general information about schools and degree programs but are limited in that they can’t tell you what it’s like as a “boots on the ground” student.


Students should absolutely care about diversity statistics but with the understanding that these numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s important to dig deeper, so here’s a quick checklist to help!

  • Look at graduation rates

  • Consider post-graduation job placement stats and other outcomes

  • Check out the diversity of staff and faculty

  • Examine the types of business partnerships the school maintains

  • Review school websites for additional info about DEI initiatives

  • Read online reviews from students

  • Engage in online discussion forums

  • Check out comments on the school’s social media

  • Talk to currently enrolled students about their experiences

  • Reach out to alumni

  • Read campus periodicals and blogs

  • Do in-person campus visits, if possible

  • Compare information from third-party sites


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