5 Key Components of an Inclusive College Campus

A truly inclusive college campus ensures everyone has access to a good education while also feeling supported in pursuing every opportunity available to them.

5 Key Components of an Inclusive College Campus

(Photo: Inga, Adobe Stock)

Inclusivity is a hot-button topic on college campuses. And yet even when intentions are good, efforts toward inclusion are often superficial at best. Publicity photos that include people from a wider range of racial backgrounds. Rewording the college website to make the language more inclusive.

Fine starts, sure, but not enough to produce real change. In this article, we take a look at the key components of inclusion on college campuses so that you can foster a community built around ethical, effective campus leadership.

What Does Inclusivity in College Mean?

“Inclusive” has become something of a buzzword over the last few decades. But aspiring towards inclusivity on college campuses is not at all a political ambition. It’s simply about making sure that the campus is as comfortable and accommodating as possible for everyone who is going there.

Another word for it is “accessibility.” You want to make sure that everyone on campus not only has the ability to get a good education but also feels as comfortable as possible pursuing every opportunity that is available to them.

It’s natural, reflexive even, to want to say, “Well, yes, of course. And we already do that.” In fact, you probably try. Very few modern college campuses actively try to limit their accessibility or inclusivity. Yet oversite can be just as effective at making a student feel uncomfortable and unwelcome as active discrimination would have been.

Accidental Inclusivity Failures

We will get into the nitty-gritty of what it takes to make a college campus inclusive in just a moment. However, perhaps an example is most illustrative of what inclusivity failures can look like.

Shelby, nineteen years old, is a first-generation college student. She logged a year at her local community college, working part-time at a fast-food restaurant in between classes to pay her way. Now she’s at University X — not Harvard by any means, but a prestigious enough school. The sort of place that says something about the people who go there.

Shelby knows that she needs to keep working while attending University X. But how? First-year students can’t have a car on campus. Even if they could, passes are $500 a year.

The school does offer public transportation in the form of a bus system. That’s a tough one too. It takes her twenty-five minutes to get to the bus stop from most places on campus. Another hour to bop around town. Stir in her school schedule. Sixteen credit hours and another thirty hours of homework, and finding employment is almost impossible.

Yeah, ok. College is expensive. Didn’t Shelby know that?

Shelby did know that. Hers isn’t the story of someone who bit off more than they can chew. It’s the tale of a hardworking, highly motivated first-generation college student. A girl whose family can’t support her financially. A girl who is more than happy to pay her way, if only she could find a clear path to doing it.

Unfortunately, it looks like there isn’t a spot for Shelby at University X. More likely than not, she’ll be back home in a year with a pretty hefty debt following her back.

What Went Wrong

University X did nothing wrong by being expensive. Well — the cost of college is a conversation for another day, at any rate. What went wrong here was that they didn’t have a space for someone like Shelby, a person who would have taken any option she could get for making this arrangement work, if only it was there for her.

Most colleges are primarily structured around catering to the needs of their core demographic. Middle to upper-class kids, largely white, whose parents also went to college. It takes effort to make sure people outside that usual demographic have everything they need to thrive at school.

So, what are the ingredients for a more inclusive college campus?

Careful Language

Please, save your groans. We know that language is only the narrowest tip of the iceberg when it comes to inclusivity, but it is an important consideration that needs to be made. Inclusive language is all about not alienating people with your choice of words.

It’s surprisingly easy to do but by avoiding generalizations you can make your communications significantly more diversity-friendly.

Universities, and for that matter, the general public, have moved decidedly in this direction already. Gone are the days of the unpleasantly masculine general pronoun use. You know what we mean, right? Where hypothetical people were always male.

But there are other considerations as well. It’s all about living and learning. Be mindful of how your school uses language, both in written and verbal communication. Mistakes will inevitably get made, but with a deliberate effort, you can avoid excluding people with your choice of words.

Accessibility

Inclusivity isn’t only about setting the right tone on campus. Some obstacles are physical or emotional. Of course, barring rare exceptions, most schools are legally required to make their buildings physically accessible to students with physical disabilities.

That’s an easy one, right? Because the government tells you exactly what to do, and because with a ramp or elevator, you can solve a big problem in someone’s life. But what about when the struggle is internal?

College campuses also need to be accessible to students with sensitive mental or emotional needs. College is a stressful time for just about everyone. Pre-existing conditions only exacerbate something that was already going to be there, to begin with.

Destigmatize mental health treatment with outreach efforts on campus. Have resources handy and make sure your students know how they can use them. Not only will this help people with diagnosed conditions but it will be a valuable asset for the rest of the student body as well.

Representation

Being able to see parts of yourself reflected in educators and staff members is a valuable thing. Diverse hiring practices can help make your school a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds. Of course, there are right and wrong ways to seek diversity in your hiring practices.

You shouldn’t go out with a checklist and say “Ok, we need three women and an African American.” However, if certain demographics aren’t well represented within your staff, it’s invaluable to ask why. What could we do to make our workplace more welcoming toward qualified African American or female candidates?

Remember, diverse hiring practices aren’t just about making students happy. There are lots of studies that show that staffs made up of people from a wide range of backgrounds are more productive and effective. You get unique perspectives and it becomes considerably easier to effectively cater to all members of your student body.

Re-evaluate Your Merit Criteria

Competitive universities have historically required a lot more than just good grades to get in. At some schools, straight As are fine, but unless you participated in the right extracurricular, your application won’t get a second look.

And that makes sense, to a degree. Competitive schools have way more applicants than they do acceptance letters. You have to place the bar somewhere, right?

Here’s the problem with that: the traditional merit-based checkmarks heavily favor privileged students. Mark got straight As while also being president of the student body and captain of the debate team. Swell for him, but what about Linda?
Linda had to work her way through high school. Nights at a fast food restaurant, and then weekends at home watching the younger siblings while her parents worked.

Are Linda’s achievements less valuable than Mark’s just because he belongs to a higher socio-economic class?

For schools that want to be inclusive, it can’t be like that. Find ways to measure merit that go beyond the traditional metrics. It’s not about lowering the bar — just acknowledging that achievement can come in many different shapes.

Active Listening

Finally, creating an inclusive college campus can’t happen without active listening. Say you’ve overhauled your communications. Improved resources and outreach. You’ve done everything on this list, and more. Now you’re done, right?

Wrong. Inclusivity is an ongoing effort. As you overhaul your services, you should also be constantly taking stock of how the students feel about your decisions. On a campus with 10,000 or more students, you will never be able to please everyone.

However, by taking surveys and leaving yourself open to feedback you accomplish at least two things:

  1. You create an environment for growth and improvement. How can you continue to improve your inclusivity efforts if you never take stock? Getting feedback provides an excellent opportunity to learn what to focus on next.
  2. You make everyone feel seen and heard. That’s the other thing. You may not be able to give every student exactly what they want or need. However, by making it clear that you care about them and their educational outcomes, you help make the school a more welcoming place for everyone. Simply by being sincere in your efforts at inclusivity, you can improve your campus.

There’s no end game in sight when it comes to college inclusivity. Such is life at university, right? Things are always changing. Ongoing inclusivity efforts are simply an extension of that. Keep working at it, and get rewarded with a happier, healthier, and more diverse student body.


Sarah Daren has been a consultant for startups in multiple industries including health and wellness, wearable technology, nursing, and education.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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