The Legacy of Diversity Recruiting and What Colleges Might Learn from the Military


I am constantly surprised by how many of the people I work with misunderstand why diversity matters in the college admissions process and how its factored in to an applicant’s “score”. During a recent coaching session, I was explaining to a client that most universities specifically consider socioeconomic factors when evaluating candidates to which his response was, “Oh, is this the affirmative action thing?” No, was my response to him, but he wasn’t exactly wrong. Admitting a diverse student body is affirmative action in the sense that affirmative action policies are meant to provide equitable access to those who have been historically underrepresented or excluded from higher education. And these policies should include a consideration of how socioeconomic factors work to exclude certain populations. Why? Let’s examine some of the facts:

  • 75% of middle and upper-class high school seniors participated in at least one extracurricular, as opposed to 56% of low-income students. Participation in extracurricular activities is an essential factor for most admissions committees in determining if a candidate has positively contributed to his community or demonstrated the ability to take on significant responsibilities.

  • 74% of the students at the top 146 highly selective institutions come from the top 25% of the socioeconomic scale, just 3% came from the lowest 25% of the socioeconomic scale. 10% came from the bottom half of the socioeconomic status scale”.

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals who are in the top 25% with respect to family income are 8 times more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 as compared to individuals from the lowest family income quartile.

  • Schools with high populations of low-income students have fewer library resources to draw on than those serving middle-income children.

  • Children from low socioeconomic families enter high school with average literacy skills 5 years behind those of wealthier students and in 2014, the high school dropout rate among young adults 16–24 years old was highest in low-income families when compared to high-income families (11.6% vs. 2.8%).


Nadirah Farah Foley, a Ph.D. student at Harvard University, who studies race, inequality, and education rightfully argues that “test scores measure class as much as they do academic aptitude; grade-point averages are as much a measure of what kind of school one attends as they are of how hard one works...Extracurricular profiles show as much about parents' cultural capital as they do about students' interests”. Socioeconomic status is a significant factor in predicting one’s level of educational attainment and a primary reason students of color, who are uniquely burdened by the impacts of poverty and social inequity, have fewer opportunities to reach the highest levels of academia.

I point to the U.S. military as a prime example of how “diversity recruiting” works in the real world and benefits our whole society.

It’s true that the DoD has a long way to go in it’s effort to fully embrace every member of our all-volunteer force (see: Trump’s efforts to transgender troops), but it has at times been at the forefront of inclusion. This most notably occurred when President Truman desegregated the military in 1948 at a time when most Americans still opposed military integration. Over the decades, the military has become increasingly diverse, out pacing many other industries. While DoD doesn’t set recruiting quotas for certain groups, it does maintain a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan which outlines efforts to affect the demographics of military leadership. The plan includes language from the 2011 All Military Report explicitly stating:

“An all-volunteer force must represent the country it defends...We benefit immensely from the different perspectives, and linguistic and cultural skills of all Americans”.

In 2015, racial minority groups made up 40% of  active-duty military, up from 25% in 1990. In the same year, the black population in the military totaled 17% compared to 13% of the general population. The share of Hispanic service members on active duty has risen from approximately 4% in 1980 to 12% in recent years. In 1973, as the last draft ended, women made up just 2 percent of the enlisted forces and 8 percent of the officer corps. Today, women represent 16% of the enlisted personnel and 18% of officers.


In part because of the educational benefits the military and Dept. of Veterans Affairs offers and an emphasis on professional development while serving, the diverse population of veterans that leave service are more likely to earn a college degree and are currently enrolling in college at higher rates than their non-veteran peers. In addition, unemployment is consistently lower among veterans, than the general public, according to current Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an article posted by the DoD in 2016, Air Force Maj. Gen. Patricia Rose, the military's highest-ranking openly gay officer at the time, stated eloquently, that “diversity and inclusion send[s] a powerful message about democracy and strengthen[s] the force...One of the most potent tools in our arsenal is our diversity”.  She added that diversity in our military “validates that there is one inherent trait that we all possess and that our institutes benefit from, and that's the diversity in each person's unique background and experience”. Likewise, former Secretary of the Army, Eric Fanning, wrote concerning diversity in the military that, “over thirty years of scientific and organizational research clearly demonstrates that cognitively diverse teams are better at solving complex problems when compared to more homogenous teams, even when the homogenous teams are composed of top performing, highly capable individuals”. He goes on to cite studies that document how teams of diverse individuals, including economic backgrounds, are better problem solvers.

So why should admissions committees consider socioeconomic indicators in the admissions process? Because this type of economic diversity matters. Our whole society benefits from having a more highly educated workforce that spans lines of class and income. Like in the military, the learning environment of a university is made richer by including students from every background including those traditionally excluded as a result of socioeconomic factors. Admissions staff should undoubtedly continue to assess this part of a candidate’s profile if we truly believe there is value in building an equitable, diverse, and well-educated society.