The role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education

February 16, 2024
5 min
Your asset will automatically download.
Didn’t get it?
Download Now

Today's college students form the most diverse cohort in history, bringing together individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. 

As the student body grows more varied, the spotlight on DEI within higher education intensifies. Institutions are under increasing pressure to not only talk about DEI initiatives but to embed these principles deeply into their culture and operations. 

Despite efforts to initiate or enhance DEI initiatives, many institutions face obstacles in creating truly inclusive educational spaces. This article will explore how higher education institutions can advance DEI and cultivate an environment where diversity is not just welcomed, but celebrated. 


Defining the pillars of DEI in higher education

In the context of higher education, the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are intended to foster an academic environment that reflects broader society. Equal opportunities are promoted, and all members are valued. Let’s take a closer look at each one:

  • Diversity encompasses the broad spectrum of identities present within a campus community, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more. A diverse range of perspectives enriches the educational experience, encouraging mutual respect and understanding through a culture of inclusion.
  • Equity involves the active commitment to address and dismantle systemic barriers that prevent full participation in educational opportunities. It's about ensuring that all students, especially those from historically marginalized groups, have the support they need to succeed.
  • Inclusion signifies the creation of an environment where every individual feels valued and empowered to contribute. It's about embedding DEI principles into every aspect of campus life, from curricula to campus policies.

Despite these goals, the journey to achieving DEI is fraught with challenges, as evidenced by recent political developments and changing student perceptions

Across the United States, there is an increased scrutiny and legislative actions against DEI programs in higher education. This environment has led to a complex landscape where institutions must navigate political pressures while striving to meet the needs of their diverse student bodies.

Additionally, key findings from Hanover’s 2023 Higher Education Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Survey indicate a two-year decline in student perceptions of institutional support for DEI as well as a decrease in the prominence of DEI topics in coursework. These insights underscore the urgent need for institutions to engage with and act upon student feedback to close equity gaps and foster a sense of belonging and connection on campus.

The path forward requires a student-first approach, prioritizing the creation of an academic environment where diversity is celebrated, equity is a given, and inclusion is woven into the very fabric of campus life. 

By committing to data-driven DEI initiatives, higher education institutions can navigate the current challenges and ensure that their campuses are places of learning, growth, and opportunity for all students.

How DEI helps shape the modern academic landscape

A DEI-infused higher education system is vital not only for addressing historical and systemic inequities but also for shaping a future where every individual can succeed.

DEI initiatives are pivotal in transforming the academic landscape, affecting:

  • Educational practices
  • Policies
  • The broader community within higher education

Unlike a one-size-fits-all approach, equity in college education considers the unique needs of every student, ensuring that students from all backgrounds have access to valuable resources, support, and learning environments. 

This tailored support is linked to superior learning outcomes, heightened engagement, and the eradication of disparities in educational achievements. 

For example, need-based scholarships and mentorship programs aimed at underrepresented students have shown significant improvements in retention and graduation rates (particularly in the STEM field), demonstrating how equity leads to better outcomes for students from all backgrounds.

Additionally, inclusive practices are essential in preparing students for a diverse and global workforce. Inclusive teaching practices and curricula that reflect a broad spectrum of perspectives and experiences equip students with the empathy, cultural competency, and critical thinking skills necessary for success in today's world. 

In fact, exposure to diversity has been shown to enhance creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills, preparing students for the realities of a diverse workforce. DEI efforts also foster a sense of belonging among students from diverse backgrounds, improving academic performance and engagement.

Despite resistance, particularly through anti-DEI laws, the necessity of DEI in creating a just, equitable society and the benefits of a diverse academic and work environment remain clear. 

By committing to these principles, universities can ensure their students acquire not only academic skills, but also the mindset for success in an increasingly diverse and global workplace. 

Overcoming barriers to inclusivity in academia

Despite the best efforts of many institutions to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into their core missions, several systemic barriers persist, often rooted in long-standing biases and historical injustices. Identifying and overcoming these obstacles is crucial for creating an environment where every student and faculty member can thrive.

One of the primary challenges to inclusivity in academia is the legacy of historical discrimination and exclusion. Many institutions are built on foundations that did not originally consider the diversity of the population they now serve. This history can manifest in various systemic issues, including but not limited to:

  • Inequitable resource allocation;
  • Lack of representation among faculty and leadership;
  • Curricula that do not fully reflect the diversity of global perspectives.

Moreover, systemic biases in admissions processes and hiring practices continue to limit diversity within student and faculty populations. Even with affirmative action policies, minorities and underrepresented groups often face barriers to entry and advancement within academic institutions.

To address these systemic barriers, institutions must adopt a multifaceted approach that involves strategic initiatives and policy changes. Key strategies include:

  • Implementing comprehensive DEI plans: Institutions should develop and execute comprehensive DEI strategies that include clear goals, accountability measures, and regular progress assessments. 
  • Developing student pipeline and pathway programs: These initiatives are aimed at supporting the recruitment and retention of students from diverse backgrounds and are crucial for building a more inclusive academic community.
  • Incorporating scholarships and retention programs: Financial support and targeted programs can significantly improve the retention rates of students from underrepresented groups.
  • Revising admissions and hiring practices: To embed DEI across all levels of the institution, consider changes to admissions and hiring practices so that you attract and retain a diverse community.
  • Promoting open dialogue: Encouraging open dialogue about DEI issues can help in identifying and addressing implicit biases. 
  • Offering professional development: Offering DEI training programs for professionals at all levels ensures that the academic community is equipped to engage in meaningful DEI efforts.

By recognizing the specific challenges and implementing targeted initiatives and policy changes, higher education institutions can make significant strides toward creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.

Implementing DEI strategies: A roadmap for institutions

For higher education institutions committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), this section provides a roadmap with actionable strategies for institutions to enhance DEI.

  • Develop comprehensive DEI policies: Define specific DEI goals with a clear action plan and key results. Hold leadership accountable for achieving these objectives, incorporating regular reviews to adapt and refine strategies.
  • Embed DEI into core values: Make DEI integral to the institution's core values, ensuring leadership support and the embodiment of these principles through daily operations and decision-making processes.
  • Challenge unconscious bias: Implement education and awareness programs to foster diverse thinking and mitigate unconscious biases among students, faculty members, and staff.
  • Collect and analyze data: Utilize data to pinpoint needs and areas of concern, forming the basis for targeted DEI initiatives and policy adjustments.
  • Launch DEI-focused campus initiatives: Initiatives such as DEI awareness campaigns, speaker series, and cultural events can play a significant role in educating the campus community and promoting an inclusive culture.
  • Incorporate DEI principles into the curriculum: Review and revise course materials, textbooks, and teaching methods to ensure they are inclusive and representative of a global viewpoint. Implementing experiential learning and work-based projects are some of the most effective ways to enhance DEI in the curriculum.
  • Implement regular DEI assessments: Regularly evaluate DEI initiatives through surveys, feedback mechanisms, and performance metrics to ensure these efforts remain aligned with institutional goals and responsive to the evolving needs of the community.

Riipen’s role in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion

Institutions committed to fostering a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse learning environment are increasingly turning to experiential and work-based learning projects as a transformative educational approach. This method has proven effective in dismantling traditional barriers to education, such as lack of resources or access to opportunities. 

Platforms like Riipen stand at the forefront of integrating DEI into higher education. Through the platform, educators are equipped to elevate learning and foster environments that allow students to directly correlate their studies with tangible career opportunities in order to address underemployment and unemployment, particularly among underserved populations.

Through this platform, educators, students, and industry partners can collaborate more effectively, ensuring that educational experiences reflect our diverse world.

With a diverse network of over 30,000 companies and projects, the platform ensures that every student, including those from underserved communities or in remote/online learning environments, has equitable access to authentic experiential learning opportunities. 

At the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, Riipen has been pivotal in enhancing career pathways through the Buff Works program, which makes work-based learning accessible to all students. Kelly Chastain, Interim Program Manager for Professional Experiences, notes, "We chose Riipen because it expands opportunities to everyone on our campus, helping students see the benefit of working with others from different perspectives or majors." 

This partnership exemplifies how integrating experiential and work-based learning projects into higher education can enhance student engagement, job readiness, and contribute to a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive future workforce.


Jump ahead:

Key takeaways

  • DEI initiatives are pivotal for addressing historical inequities and preparing students for a diverse global workforce. 
  • Institutions are advised to develop comprehensive DEI policies, challenge unconscious bias, collect and analyze data for targeted initiatives, and incorporate DEI principles into curricula and campus initiatives.
  • Platforms like Riipen are highlighted for their role in advancing DEI by facilitating experiential and work-based learning projects, which have been shown to dismantle traditional educational barriers and enhance career pathways for students from all backgrounds.

Take a look at how Riipen can help enrich your DEI initiatives. Schedule a free demo.

Enter your email address to subscribe to The Riipen Report.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Some Form Elements
hs-form is main form class.
form-columns-1 is class of wrapper with 1 column for inputs.
form-columns-2 is class of wrapper with 2 columns for inputs.
input and label
Field Description / Help text
This is help text for the field
Field error message
hs-error-msgs inputs-list
  • Error message label
hs-error-msgs inputs-list is an HTML list element.
hs-error-msg is a text span inside HTML List Item element.
Text area Input
hs-input hs-fieldtype-textarea
hs-fieldtype-textarea is added as combo class.
Note: HubSpot uses basic HTML checkboxes, Webflow checkboxes works differently than the default HTML checkboxes, hence in order to style HubSpot checkboxes you need custom CSS.
you can use Webflow checkbox to style and then copy CSS from it.
Radio Buttons
Success message
Submit button
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.