Increasing familiarity, reducing discrimination
Kids learning at school in Kumrokhali, India.
Advocates for classroom diversity often argue that it isn’t just for ensuring fair access to high-quality education. They claim that a diverse student body instills understanding and empathy in the next generation.
Yet little empirical support actually exists for this argument.
Recent experiments in India demonstrated that having poor classmates makes students from wealthy families more likely to volunteer for charities and less likely to discriminate against poorer students, according to a paper in the March issue of the American Economic Review.
The author of the study, professor Gautam Rao of Harvard University, asked how a policy change that required most elite Delhi schools to reserve seats for poor children changed rich students’ sense of fairness and openness.
In particular, he looked at how much rich students were willing to associate with kids from less affluent backgrounds. One experiment randomly assigned students to three different relay races—footraces with winnings of 50 rupees (Rs), 200 Rs, and 500 Rs per teammate. (500 Rs, or roughly $10, is about a month’s pocket money for older, richer students, according to the author.)
During the experiment, students were asked to introduce themselves and interact before the races so their socioeconomic status could become apparent. Each student was then required to run sprints to reveal each runner’s ability. They were also told they would be required to socialize with their teammates for two hours after the race.
Finally, before the races, students submitted a list of their preferred relay partners. And after the races, the prizes were disbursed.
Figure 7 Rao (2019)
Figure 7 from Rao’s paper shows the share of wealthy students who chose a slower, richer student over a faster, poorer student versus the size of the winnings.
The solid green line represents the control group—students from schools and cohorts exempted from offering placements to poor students. Rich students in the control group discriminated nearly 40 percent of the time when the prizes were only 50 Rs.
The students from schools and cohorts affected by the new policy—the dashed red line—showed a much lower tendency to discriminate, with the effect vanishing as the prize money increased.
Rao investigated several other outcomes, such as generosity and fairness, that showed similar patterns, although academic achievement suffered slightly among rich students after the policy change.
His research shows that peers have a big impact social preferences and helps put claims about the benefits of integrated schools on firmer empirical ground.