Digest No. 11 - August 2023

Infusing Diversity throughout the Curriculum Benefits All Students

Denson, N.; Bowman, N. A.; Ovenden, G.; Culver, K. C.; and Holmes, J. M. 2021. “Do Diversity Courses Improve College Student Outcomes? A Meta-Analysis.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.


Higher education has recently intensified its collective focus on enhancing diversity learning. However, the precise effects of diversity learning on student outcomes—that is, what is learned and by whom—has remained a cloudy, if not contested, question in the research literature. This large meta-analysis sought to provide definitive answers to these questions. The research team gathered 73 peer-reviewed publications from before 1990 to 2014 that examined diversity courses and their outcomes, resulting in a total undergraduate sample size of 116,092. Using this enormous data set and highly sophisticated techniques, they were able to provide definitive answers to longstanding questions about the effectiveness of diversity learning and how it is best conducted. Diversity learning improves many student outcomes, benefits both students of color and white students, and is most effective when distributed throughout the curriculum rather than in specific diversity courses.


Diversity courses appear to have a positive effect on student behavioral, intentional, affective, and cognitive outcomes, but the effect is universally small. Perhaps the most striking finding is that the oft-repeated assumption that white students benefit more from diversity learning than students of color is not necessarily the case. This notion has underpinned a significant degree of policy and programming in colleges, yet it appears to be a result of the consistently small sample sizes of students of color in diversity learning impact studies, which in turn made it more difficult to statistically establish growth of students of color compared to that of their (usually more numerous) white peers.

Of equal importance is that diversity learning is most impactful when distributed across the curriculum rather than sequestered in single diversity-focused courses. Finally, intergroup dialogue or structured discussion also appeared to provide no measurable benefits to student outcomes.


Campus leaders should consider restructuring diversity learning programs in light of these findings—specifically, working with programs to ensure that diversity issues are covered throughout the curriculum in a way that demonstrates their applicability to the subject area. Providing diversity learning interspersed throughout the curriculum will ensure that all students will be positioned to benefit from it, and to a greater degree than if it remains sequestered in specific diversity-focused courses, which would likely be ignored by those disinclined toward diversity learning in the first place.


Nida Denson is an associate professor in the School of Psychology at Western Sydney University.

Nicholas Bowman is the Mary Louise Peterson Chair in Higher Education and a professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies at the University of Iowa.

Georgia Ovenden is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne.

K.C. Culver is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.

Joshua Holmes is the director of institutional research and assessment at Suffolk University.


Gurin, P.; Dey, E.; Hurtado, S.; and Gurin, G. 2002. “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes.” Harvard Educational Review, 72, 330–367. http://dx.doi.org/10.17763/haer.72.3 .01151786u134n051

Jayakumar, U. 2008. “Can Higher Education Meet the Needs of an Increasingly Diverse and Global Society? Campus Diversity and Cross-Cultural Workforce Competencies.” Harvard Educational Review, 78, 615–651.

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, 365–387. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11162-005-2966-1