- A growing number of colleges offer bachelor’s or master’s degrees in diversity, equity and inclusion.
- The trend is in response to heightened demand for DEI experts – and comes amid backlash against diversity initiatives.
- Courses in the programs vary but tend to be interdisciplinary, covering topics ranging from history to business management.
Anyfern González, an undergraduate student at Bentley University near Boston, switched her major four times before settling on a relatively new degree program.
Her chosen course of study is one offered at few other institutions: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI.
The term has become contentious. Most recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed removing DEI programs from the state’s public universities on the grounds that they’re too ideological. But at its core, advocates say, these programs are about helping different groups achieve representation, participation and a sense of belonging.
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“I’m finally in a place now, especially with the major, where I’m establishing myself, just feeling comfortable in the spaces I enter,” says González, a senior who is of Dominican descent and grew up in a low-income household in Salem, Massachusetts. She’s the first in her family to attend college.
Bentley’s DEI degree programs — a bachelor of science and a bachelor of arts — were the country’s first undergraduate-level offerings of their kind.
Amid mounting demand for DEI experts in everything from education to finance, the number of colleges with undergraduate and graduate DEI programs has been growing. At least a half-dozen colleges across the country either offer DEI degree programs or soon will, according to a USA TODAY analysis.
There has also been an explosion in DEI certificate programs, which tend to be less rigorous and more narrow. Dozens of colleges offer minors or concentrations with titles such as “diversity studies,” from Texas State University to Michigan Tech to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. And more than 100 schools now offer programs categorized as intercultural or multicultural diversity studies, up from about 50 in 2012, according to research by the consulting firm Eduventures.
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Attracting new students, making colleges more welcoming
Comprehensive data hasn’t been collected on how many colleges offer DEI degrees, let alone on the outcomes of these new, niche programs. Some observers, including executive coach and DEI expert James Rodgers, worry that they’re little more than a superficial — but lucrative — response to 2020’s racial reckoning.
But participants and advocates say these degrees make perfect sense in a society rife with identity-related conflict and ripe with opportunities for professionals trained in bridging divides.
González, who will be the first Bentley student to graduate with a bachelor of science in DEI, signed up for the program soon after hearing about it. As a freshman and sophomore, she struggled to adjust to Bentley’s campus culture but has thrived since switching to a DEI major. She’s taken classes on managing diversity in the workplace, the history of racism in the U.S. and the ways in which people’s identities intersect.
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“It’s been a discovery for me to simply find my voice,” says González, who interned for a consulting firm doing DEI work, learning about options she could pursue with her degree. She also became attuned to the significance of company culture and how she could become someone who shapes it.
Gary David, a Bentley sociology professor who helped develop the school’s DEI programs, says one rationale for establishing the major was to enroll new types of students. “We can’t attract different people if we’re in the same place we’ve been,” he recalls himself arguing.
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DEI degrees meet demand for specific skills
But creating DEI degrees also addresses the growing demand for people with explicit expertise in the subject. LinkedIn data shows that between 2015 and 2020, diversity and inclusion roles have increased 71 percent globally. Other research shows a pronounced uptick since 2020. According to data from Indeed.com, for example, DEI job postings increased 123 percent between May and September 2020.
People often assume that “anyone can do (DEI) work or that we don’t need this function,” says Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. But she says more and more employers are realizing that they need to be better about DEI if they want to succeed — and doing so requires specific skills. According to Granberry Russell, her organization’s membership has grown 60 percent since 2020.
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“You go into the program thinking, ‘I have a certain level of expertise’ or ‘I have the vocabulary down,’” says Darwin Conner, who recently earned a master’s focused on DEI leadership from Tufts University in suburban Boston and now serves as chief diversity officer at a New York law firm. “And when you get there, and you start reading and interacting with your classmates, you realize how much you don’t know.”
The University of St. Thomas, which has campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, is in the process of launching a DEI master’s program. “It is time for us, as a society, to move from empathy to action,” says Eddy Rojas, executive vice president and provost of the Catholic university.
“Action means knowing what diversity really means, knowing the power of diversity and how to take advantage of it.”
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It’s an interdisciplinary feat, and St. Thomas’ program will reflect that, Rojas says, drawing from eight departments across three colleges. It will also strive to keep tuition low — as little as $7,500 a year for the average student.
DEI ‘is about saving lives’
Leaders at St. Thomas and other schools say their goal, in tune with their interdisciplinary character, is to appeal to a wide range of students – not just those who aspire to be chief diversity officers. And they want to attract students outside the self-selected groups who tend to enroll in diversity-related programs – namely, women, people of color and those with progressive viewpoints.
Avoiding an echo chamber is critical for these programs to have real impact, according to Rodgers, who co-wrote a 2022 book on how to conduct DEI training that is authentic and transformative.
For Rodgers, DEI initiatives in the corporate world too often fall flat, largely because there’s little concrete consensus on and understanding of what “diversity” and “inclusion” mean.
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Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, agrees. “Sometimes these (DEI) positions become more performative than they are practical,” he says.
Such challenges are precisely why degree programs are needed, leaders and advocates say.
“For me, DEI is very much a life-or-death kind of thing,” says Silas Pinto, who co-directs the Tufts program, which now includes “justice” in its name. Pinto points to the ways systemic oppression affects certain people’s health and livelihoods.
“It’s not just a kumbaya, holding-hands-by-the-fire framework. It’s very much about saving lives and doing that in an intentional way.”
Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.