07/29/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

Declining Diversity in Higher Education

The numbers say it all. Diversity is declining in higher education across the United States.

I do not mean there are declining numbers of women. Nor do I mean there are declining numbers of African-Americans or Blacks, Asian-Americans or Hispanics. I also do not mean that there is a shift to a more homogenous age group attending college. As far as I can tell from various data sets, representational diversity is not declining, though access certainly remains a problem for higher education.

What I mean is that the range of diversity of the higher education ecology is declining at the institutional level, and this concerns me.

A few examples?

• According to the Women's College Coalition, "in the 1960's, there were more than 200 women's colleges in the U.S. Now there are fewer than 50."

• While many institutions of higher education in the United States began as single sex men's institutions, today only three non-religious institutions are regularly identified as men's only: Wabash College, Morehouse College, and Hampden Sydney College

• Institutions sometimes known as "coordinates" include various arrangements that segregate male and female students. Their number has also declined, including most famously the shift of Radcliffe to a research institute and the admission of women to Harvard. More recently, the closure of Sophie Newcomb in New Orleans was attributed to the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Currently, there exist eight coordinate colleges, each organized somewhat distinctively, including the University of Richmond, Columbia/Barnard, Yeshiva/Stern College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota (each of which has its own president).

• The disappearance of liberal arts colleges seems to be occurring as well. While not all instances have involved closure of institutions, curricular change has definitely meant fewer appear in the category of liberal arts institutions now than in 1990.

What has caused this? Well, some of the root causes are positive ones on the face of it. Once anti-catholic sentiment declined and Roman Catholics were allowed into other organizations, the need for a separate set of institutions may have declined. Once women were admitted elsewhere, the need for women's organizations appeared to decline. Formerly men's colleges that are now co-educational often made that change for reasons associated with social justice (though legalities and dollars perhaps matter as much). The impact may be multiplicative, meaning that these and other forces combined to lead to a decline in the number (or stability) of, for example, Catholic women's institutions. Add race to this equation or other previously excluded religious groups such as Jews, and we see the loss of some kinds of institutions. Or, they become at-risk.

It may also be that other forces are at work. For example, in her book Different, Youngme Moon argues that our tendency to use comparison groups to drive our metrics may mean that we have homogenized. Just look at mission statements across our sector. Why does the notion of "excellent, interdisciplinary, international, creation of responsible citizens through service learning and close faculty/student interaction" seem so familiar? Because it is.

Here we might also consider the impact of a widening -- and deepening -- trend to focus on work force development as a goal for education, on rising costs, and the decreasing public funding of higher education. Each of these shapes the "market" and its declining diversity. So, too, do some very important positive initiatives to help students who move from institution to institution; helping ensure transfer credit is a good thing, though doing so badly can decrease the distinctive educations various places offer. And, of course, the notion of "scale" means that very small institutions face threats to their viability, despite being models of what larger institutions call "learning communities" and tout as "high impact" practices.

Of course, not all of the story of today's higher education is about a decline in diversity. Over the years, we have seen increases in the number and strength of community colleges and public liberal arts colleges, for example. And, we have come to identify, for example, Hispanic Serving Institutions as well as coalitions that have high Pell eligibility. There are other changes as well. For example, where once there were no accredited for-profit higher education institutions, now these exist. And, there are online courses of various sorts as well as calls for un-college (alongside un-schooling and homeschooling). The rise of Muslim and Buddhist education in the United States, too, enhances the diversity of the American (and global) educational ecology.

And yet, the landscape of higher education today seems pretty homogenous. It seems more homogenous than when I entered college, when I began my Ph.D., and when I became a faculty member. This strikes me as not merely a complaint of the geezer in me but a loss of something distinctive about American higher education.

What can we do? What ought we to do?