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Is Self-Segregation Inevitable?

My employer graciously paid for me to attend the annual Society of Labor Economists meetings this weekend, and today was busy with many seminars, poster sessions, and heavily detailed discussion about statistical techniques. Among other things addressed, interesting topics discussed included the role of nuns in encouraging fertility, the deceleration of female entry into the workforce, why fat kids will never exhibit good leadership abilities, and the use of SAT data to proxy for secondary school quality.

But one of the sessions that I attended today stood out as particularly relevant to a perennial policy discussion that takes place at Cornell: campus diversity and the self-segregation of students.

Some innovative researchers from Texas have been mining facebook.com for data on student socialization patterns to determine the primary motivations behind why people befriend certain people but not others. While other researchers have done this type of analysis for small private colleges (think Dartmouth or Williams) previously there has not been data available on such a wide basis as facebook.com provides.

Since facebook.com not only indicates who is friends with who, but is also a repository for all sorts of fascinating information about individuals, like musical tastes, political persuasion, hometown, and extracurricular activities, the researchers were able to create a pretty robust structural model to predict the determinants of a persons friendship with anybody else. They were then able to match up individual student profiles with university provided data from the registrar, like classes taken, grades received, income, level of parental education, and other demographic information.

The researchers were mostly concerned about the interaction of individuals across different race/ethnicities to determine whether or not there were any policy prescriptions to encourage interaction across groups (as proxied by a ‘friendship’ on the social networking site). In doing so, they looked at 10 large Texas universities.

The results might not be surprising to a lot of readers: there is not one variable that can significantly increase the propensity to interact across disparate groups. Forced intermixing through dorms, classes, or extracurricular events would not increase the ‘clusteredness’ or social groups. Even after running theoretical simulations on the data that would assume, for instance that everybody would be allocated to dorms randomly, or people chose classes on a random basis, the researcher’s results hold; self-segregation by class, race, ethnicity, or interest is completely motivated by individual preferences and not by any type of policy that a university may control.

The numbers speak for themselves, and what may be most surprising to some readers is what variables matter the most in predicting whether or not any two people will be friends; being a member of a Greek organization or a varsity athlete is a better predictor of one person’s click than such things as dorm, major, or whether or not somebody is asian or Hispanic. African-American students, however, are, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very inward-looking community of students on campus.

Considering these findings, perhaps the only way a university may encourage more “diverse interactions” among its students is to decrease the diversity of its students along another dimension. For instance, if Cornell only started to accept rich students from affluent suburbs, I would suspect that the amount of intermixing between different races/ethnicities would increase, but only because they would find that they have more common socio-economic backgrounds. Furthermore, I would argue that this exact phenomenon is to a large extent what smaller, richer schools with perhaps a greater amount of racial interaction tend to exhibit.

But would Cornell ever want to adopt such a policy? No, I would allege. One of Cornell’s greatest strengths is the diversity of the student body, and although at times the University can feel like it is just the extension of a Long Island high school, myriad statistics demonstrate that Cornell is one the most diverse elite private institutions in the country. That Cornell embodies so many different student communities and virtually every niche imaginable stands as a testament to Ezra’s vision that he would found an institution such that ‘any person could find instruction in any study.’

The remaining question is program houses. How should the perennial program house debate be structured in light of the fact that even forced dorm or class interactions would not encourage more “friendliness” across individuals with widely different interests? While the argument that Cornell should not exhibit any partiality whatsoever in its recognition of living arrangements may be compelling to some, such a position remains idealistic at best, and practical only for freshman year. After which, no moral argument could outweigh the overall social benefits achieved when similar minded students can elect to “block” with each other on campus.

Furthermore, as long as the University continues to support ‘self-segregated’ living arrangements through the de facto subsidy of such things as fraternities, sororities, and cooperative housing, I see no reason why pro-active students shouldn’t be allowed to lobby the University to create residential arrangements catered to their own needs – whether that be an eco-friendly house, an all female residential hall, a performing and visual arts college, or a dorm that embraces a certain cultural identity. (Especially in light of some student’s confirmed fears that racism may be alive and well on campus.) If people are going to self-segregate themselves anyway, why can’t the University accommodate student’s needs and see to it that Jewish, artsy, eco-friendly, and black students alike are going to seek to live with each other in supporting environments?

In the end, it should really be an individual’s choice as to whether or not they wish to interact with others of a diverse background, and all the University can really do to facilitate this interaction is to provide for a diverse student body. And Cornell is very successful to this end. (Our percentage of non-white and middle-class students is very high when compared to our peer institutions.) The rest is up to the student. And speaking from my own experiences on East Hill, if one desires to go out and learn from others of different backgrounds, Ithaca is a very rich place to live for four years.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 05, 2006 (#)

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