American Diversity is Beautiful

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Noah Drezner

Earlier this month, the Super Bowl was filled with commercials that made us laugh, pulled at our heart strings, and celebrated American patriotism. As the first half came to a close, The Coca-Cola Company premiered “It’s Beautiful,” a 60-second commercial that was meant to salute all Americans and the “Coca-Cola moments” that we share with one another.

The commercial featured the song “America the Beautiful” originally written as a poem by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 to celebrate Independence Day.  In the Coke version it was sung by young American women in seven languages, English, Tagalog, Spanish, Hebrew, Hindi, Keres, and Senegalese-French. The images of the ad showcased the US landscape with majestic Pacific views, the expansive desert Southwest, and the great metropolitan cities paired with impressions of the lives of Americans and our rich diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, and families. We saw  a cowboy riding his horse, kids sipping a Coke at the movies, teenagers on surfboards and breakdancing, a Latino family sitting down for dinner, Muslim women wearing their hijab while buying food from a cart in Chinatown, two Jewish men in kippot looking upon the newly-built World Trade Center, and a same-sex family enjoying roller skating together.

By halftime social media was abuzz…“In America we speak English.” Conservative pundits[A1]  accused Coke of pushing multiculturalism down our collective throats. The backlash was expected. And, I believe that The Coca-Cola Company knew exactly what it was doing with their advertisement.  They were marketing to the expanding diverse population that is becoming—and has been—the American reality.

According to the US Census, the United States is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, as is American higher education. The Department of Education reports that between 1980 and 2011 minority student enrollment increased by nearly 300 percent across all of post-secondary education. The Center for MSIs reports that Latino/a enrollment increased over 500 percent, Black student enrollment increased 165 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders by 336 percent, and American Indians/Alaska Natives by 118 percent, while the White student proportion of the college enrollment fell by more than 26 percent, over the same period.

Coca-Cola’s advertisement reflects what America looks like and what higher education must look like in order to serve the American population in the coming decades. MSIs, in all of their forms, are educating much of the diversity that Coke highlighted. For example, historically Black colleges and university (HBCUs), while only making up 3 percent of higher education enroll 11 percent of Black undergraduates. Ten percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native undergraduates are enrolled in Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), which don’t even account for 1 percent of American higher education. Similarly, Hispanic serving institutions (HSIs) make up less than 5 percent of US colleges and universities, however, account for one-half of all Latinos pursuing their bachelor’s degree. Finally, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs), which make up less than 3 percent of institutions, enroll 25 percent of AAP undergraduates. Beyond student enrollment, MSIs also better reflect American diversity in the faculty as well, employing a much more diverse professoriate than predominantly White institutions.

While MSIs enrollment is reflective of the America reflected in the Coke’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, many of these institutions still have a number of challenges ahead of them in retaining and graduating their diverse student bodies. The six-year graduation rates at MSIs are below the national average, which can be explained by the substantial proportion of low-income students that are served at these institutions. While the lower socio-economic status of MSIs’ students might explain the lower graduation rates, it is not a justification; we must work towards increasing the graduation rates at all MSIs. It is not only MSIs’ obligation, but all of American higher educations’ responsibility to make sure that our students of color not only enroll in college but achieve their degree.

The Coca-Cola Company through its Super Bowl commercial reminds us that diversity, like America, is beautiful. MSIs through their enrollment, employment, and larger work add to that beauty and diversity.

Noah D. Drezner is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park and an affiliate at PennGSE’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions

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