Digest No. 01 - November 2016

The Impact of Diversity Courses on College Students’ Moral Development

Parker, E.T., C.L. Barnhardt, E.T. Pascarella, and J.A. McCowin. 2016. “The Impact of Diversity Courses on College Students’ Moral Development.” The Journal of College Student Development, 37(4), 395–410.


The creation of inclusive and affirming campus environments constitutes an important issue confronting college and universities in general and independent colleges and universities in particular. The values of equity and inclusion stand as instrumental to the formation of an inclusive and affirming campus environment that improves the campus racial climate. The requirement of diversity courses as a part of the general education component of the undergraduate college curriculum constitutes an approach to improving campus racial climates.

In addition to reducing racial bias (Chang 2002), research demonstrates that taking a diversity course leads to an array of other positive outcomes such as cognitive and academic development (Nelson Laird, 2005), civic engagement (Bowman 2011), social justice, and action (Bowman 2010, 2011; Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin 2002). Eugene T. Parker III, Cassie L. Barnhardt, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Jarvis A. McCowin report that taking a diversity course also may enhance the moral development of students, as the content of diversity courses can increase the capacity of students to make moral judgments on matters of human dignity, especially regarding racial differences. To elaborate, taking a diversity course produces a state of cognitive disequilibrium in students as issues emerge through encountering the content of the course and interacting with other students taking the course. Such encounters with course content result in opportunities for students to engage in moral reasoning, which in turn leads to an increase in their moral development. Accordingly, this article empirically addresses the question of whether taking a diversity course positively affects the moral development of students over a four-year period.

To empirically address the question of whether taking a diversity course positively affects the moral development of students, Parker et al. constructed a longitudinal sample comprised of 998 fourth-year, full-time undergraduate students who took the Defining Issues Test-2 (DIT-2) in the summer or early fall of 2006 as entering first-year students and again in the spring of 2010. These 998 students are enrolled in one of 17 four-year colleges and universities that participated in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education. These 17 institutions included 11 liberal arts colleges, three research universities, and three regional universities.

The DIT-2 assesses the degree to which students respond to moral dilemmas using higher-order post-conventional moral reasoning (Rest, Thomas, Narvaez, and Bebeau 1997). Given the above formulations of Parker et al. regarding the state of cognitive disequilibrium produced in students as they confront moral dilemmas involving equity and inclusion, their choice of the DIT-2 constitutes a very suitable measure of moral development.

Parker et al. measured student participation in a diversity course in several ways: a global measure and three specific measures. The global measure consisted of whether a student enrolled in one of the following types of diversity courses: diverse cultures and perspectives, women or gender studies, and issues of equality and/or social justice. The three specific measures correspond to these specific types of diversity courses and assess whether a student enrolled in a focal one.

Discussion of the Findings

The authors used ordinary least squares regression to determine if taking diversity courses positively affects student moral development. In their execution of this regression procedure, Parker et al. controlled for various factors that also might affect moral development in addition to taking diversity courses. They also controlled for the summer/early fall DIT-2 score of the 998 students that comprised the longitudinal sample used in this regression. The authors conducted two regression procedures: one with the global measure of taking a diversity course and the other with three separate measures of the specific types of diversity courses.

The results of the first regression analysis showed that taking at least one diversity course (global measure) influenced the moral development of students in a statistically significant positive way. The second regression conducted indicated that taking a diversity course that stressed diverse cultures and perspectives as well as enrolling in a diversity course that focused on equality and social justice also positively influenced student moral development in a statistically significant manner. Taking a women or gender studies course, however, yielded little or no effect on student moral development.

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

Parker et al. commented on their findings by asserting, “these findings emerge as particularly compelling—and suggest that diversity courses as an aspect of the undergraduate curriculum are likely to yield a profound positive influence on students’ moral development discernment by the end of college.” This assertion provides a springboard for action by campus leaders at CIC member institutions regarding implications for institutional practice.

Institutions either currently involved in or contemplating a revision of the general education component of their undergraduate curriculum should consider the outcomes of this study. If not currently required, a diversity course as part of the general education component should receive serious consideration to help achieve an inclusive and affirming campus environment and to prepare graduates for a multicultural world. This requirement could be stated in the form of a choice between two types of diversity courses: one focused on diverse cultures and perspectives (e.g. African American Studies or Latino Studies) and the other a course pertaining to equity and social justice.

Mechanisms for fostering the moral development of students stand as an important consideration for CIC member colleges and universities. The findings of Parker et al. point to diversity courses as such a mechanism.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

There are two categories of literature that readers may wish to consult to further their understanding of both diversity courses and moral development. One category includes references cited in this article review and the other category includes references that provide readers with an understanding of both diversity courses and moral development.

References Cited in This Review

Bowman, N. 2011. “Promoting Participation in a Diverse Democracy: A Meta-Analysis of College Diversity Experiences and Civic Engagement.” Review of Educational Research, 81, 29–68.

Bowman, N. 2010. “Disequilibrium and Resolution: The Nonlinear Effects of Diversity Courses on Well-being and Orientation Toward Diversity.” Review of Higher Education, 33, 543–568.

Chang, M. 2002. “The Impact of an Undergraduate Diversity Course Requirement on Students’ Racial Views and Attitudes.” The Journal of General Education, 51, 21–42.

Gurin, P., E. Dey, S. Hurtado, and G. Gurin. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review, 72, 330–367.

Nelson Laird, T.F. 2005. “College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking.” Research in Higher Education, 46(4), 365–387.

Rest, J., S. Thomas, D. Narvaez, and M. Bebeau. 1997. “Alchemy and Beyond: Indexing the Defining Issues Test.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 89, 498–507.

References for Understanding

Goodstein, L. 1994. “Achieving a Multicultural Curriculum Conceptual, Pedagogical, and Structural Issues.” The Journal of General Education, 43, 102–116.

Kohlberg, L., and R. Hersh. 1977. “Moral Development: A Review of the Theory.” Theory into Practice, 16, 53–59.