Choosing a college isn’t easy in the best of times. Pile on our sociopolitical climate and you have yet another set of cultural factors to consider.

After all, college is where you’ll be spending the next four years (give or take) of your life, and your experiences there will no doubt help define you.

When looking for a school where you will feel you belong, it’s important to assess the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. This is a key factor in identifying whether you will have opportunities to reach your full potential and thrive. How do you make that call? Start by asking — and answering — these four key questions.

1. How does school leadership handle conflicts on campus?

When a high-profile conflict around race or inequality arises, what steps are school leadership likely to take to address it? Will their response show they understand the significance of the situation, or will they ignore or dismiss students’ concerns?

Casey Garcelon, a 2017 graduate of Claremont McKenna College, knows how it feels when difficulties arise. The 2015–16 school year was especially tumultuous for Garcelon and other students of color at Claremont McKenna, as they dealt with a demand for basic resources and support for marginalized students going unrecognized, a heated student senate debate over racially insensitive Halloween costumes and the eventual resignation of the dean.

In the end though, the persistence of Garcelon and her classmates paid off. Their lobbying resulted in the school hiring a new dean who cultivated relationships, had candid conversations and was generally more inclusive. “We started having larger campus discussions and integrating everyone’s experiences,” Garcelon says.

2. Who is on the faculty?

“The biggest thing that colleges won’t talk about is the makeup of the faculty,” says Suzanne Wertheim, founder of Worthwhile Research & Consulting. “At most universities, more than half of the people teaching classes are part-time adjuncts, the majority of whom are women. The biggest share of tenured faculty are white and/or male.” In 2015, 77 percent of full-time faculty members at degree-granting institutions were white, 10 percent were Asian, 6 percent were Black, 4 percent were Hispanic and less than 1 percent were Native American.

Suzanne stresses that students to whom diversity is important need to seriously consider the effects of homogeneity, how it will impact the way they’re treated and how it could shape their evolving views. What might be the limits of your social and academic possibilities in this kind of environment?

Look at the faculty pages on the school’s website, reach out to professors via email and even consider paying them a visit when you do your campus tour. Articulate the kind of experience you expect to have in college and gauge their responses. If they dismiss your concerns or give boilerplate answers, it indicates that they don’t share your values. If they actively listen and engage in conversation, it probably means they will be a champion for you once you arrive on campus.

3. What resources and support systems are offered?

A school that values diversity and inclusion is going to have programs in place that support students from all backgrounds, period. That’s why Courri Brady, a student success coach at ReUp Education, encourages students to explore whether organizations for students from marginalized populations have been institutionalized. “This conversation extends beyond diversity; we’re talking about inclusion,” says Brady. “You admitted me, but if you’re not giving me support, it’s lip service.”

When talking to school officials or visiting campus, find out if there is an active Black student union, LGBTQ center or other clubs, organizations and associations that are positively contributing to a diverse and inclusive campus vibe. If you can find your community, then this may be the school for you.  

4. What is the actual lived student experience?

Westley Savant, a 2017 graduate of a Massachusetts college, faced a common challenge when he started college. “I was hoping that campus would be as diverse as I was told it would be on my recruiting tours,” Savant says. “But when I got to my classes, I found that I was often the only Black male. Professors wanted to include me in discussions, so they called on me first thinking I’d say something different just because I was a Black male.”

“Don’t rely on the marketing collateral to make your decision,” Savant advises. “Visit all kinds of schools, and stop to talk to kids from different races about the classes. Get to know the city where the college is. You can’t go into it being ignorant.”

Cody Rapp, another student success coach at ReUp Education, agrees. “You have to find out what the lived experience is from people who have lived it,” he says. “Coming into college, you’re inundated with options, so it’s up to you to pick your community and find the place where you feel valued and welcomed.”