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The Cost of Inclusion

How Student Conformity Leads to Inequality on College Campuses

The Cost of Inclusion

How Student Conformity Leads to Inequality on College Campuses

Young people are told that college is a place where they will “find themselves” by engaging with diversity and making friendships that will last a lifetime. This vision of an inclusive, diverse social experience is a fundamental part of the image colleges sell potential students. But what really happens when students arrive on campus and enter this new social world? The Cost of Inclusion delves into this rich moment to explore the ways students seek out a sense of belonging and the sacrifices they make to fit in.

Blake R. Silver spent a year immersed in student life at a large public university. He trained with the Cardio Club, hung out with the Learning Community, and hosted service events with the Volunteer Collective. Through these day-to-day interactions, he witnessed how students sought belonging and built their social worlds on campus. Over time, Silver realized that these students only achieved inclusion at significant cost. To fit in among new peers, they clung to or were pushed into raced and gendered cultural assumptions about behavior, becoming “the cool guy,” “the nice girl,” “the funny one,” “the leader,” “the intellectual,” or “the mom of the group.” Instead of developing dynamic identities, they crafted and adhered to a cookie-cutter self, one that was rigid and two-dimensional. Silver found that these students were ill-prepared for the challenges of a diverse college campus, and that they had little guidance from their university on how to navigate the trials of social engagement or the pressures to conform. While colleges are focused on increasing the diversity of their enrolled student body, Silver’s findings show that they need to take a hard look at how they are failing to support inclusion once students arrive on campus.


"The elegant prose and the exceptionally rich, detailed, and keen ethnographic insights are among the book’s many strengths. . . . the book is a wonderful addition to the field and will be of interest to audiences concerned about the unintended consequences of social involvement in the absence of intentional efforts by the university to ensure positive and equitable social experiences for all students."

Social Forces

“With rich ethnographic detail, Silver shows that becoming part of the campus community is harder—and often far less rewarding—than it may first seem. While the administration claims that campus involvement is beneficial for students, Silver, through interviews with students and time spent with three student organizations, paints a different picture: racial and gender inequalities are reproduced as students become locked into two-dimensional characters such as ‘the caregiver’ or ‘the entertainer.’ Silver is skilled at demonstrating that diversity can be both celebrated and constrained within a single college campus. This is an important book for scholars and administrators alike.”

Susan A. Dumais, Lehman College, City University of New York

“A master class in ethnographic observation of a thriving college campus. Using an incisive intersectional lens, Silver paints a vivid picture of how college students from a wide range of demographic backgrounds experience extracurricular involvement. While women and racial minorities are often pushed to the margins of group life, despite their interest and assets, white men are rapidly elevated to the center—to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications. As colleges around the country exhort students to ‘get involved’ and ‘find your niche,’ this deep analysis reveals that ‘belonging’ is not equally available to all.”

Laura Hamilton, author of Paying for the Party and Parenting to a Degree

“Silver’s The Cost of Inclusion is an insightful, well-written analysis of students’ social roles on residential college campuses. Silver describes how race and gender shape opportunities for leadership and inclusion on campus. The book is a must-read for students and scholars of higher education!”

Natasha K. Warikoo, author of The Diversity Bargain

"The book is engaging and accessible."

Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice (JSARP)

"Faculty advisors and student affairs practitioners alike would benefit from this in-depth analysis of how and why student organizations replicate existing power structures and what might be done to help them operate with more true inclusivity."

The Review of Higher Education

"The book makes important contributions to the literature on student development and higher education. It provides insight into the dynamics of student organizations and practical suggestions for reducing inequality in these spaces.... For these reasons, the book is likely to be of value to scholars of inequality and higher education and student affairs professionals."

American Journal of Sociology


American Educational Studies Association: AESA Critics' Choice Book Award

National Association of Student Personnel Administrators: Faculty Council Outstanding Publication Award

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