By Grace Austin

Art and design have long been an outlet for the different, the marginalized, and the pioneering. And over time, design schools have become the traditional homes for educating those who will go on to produce and reshape design. So why does diversity still remain an issue?

Parsons The New School of Design, is working to figure that out. One of the most prestigious design schools in the country, Parsons has produced such notable alums like Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein, and Norman Rockwell. Famous for promulgating “progressive creativity and social activism,” the school is located in the city synonymous with diversity, New York City.

Diversity, at least of thought, has been essential to the school since its inception. The American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase founded the school in 1896. Chase led a small group of Progressives who left the Art Students League of New York in search of more individualistic expression.

In 1904, arts educator Frank Alvah Parsons joined the school. Six years later, he became its director. Predicting art and design’s growing relationship to business, Parsons launched a series of groundbreaking programs, the first of their kind in the United States: fashion design, 1904 (originally costume design); interior design, 1904 (formerly interior decoration); and advertising and graphic design (originally commercial illustration). The school adopted Parsons’ name in 1941.

Later, Parsons joined the New School, becoming one of seven colleges within the university overall.

Parsons, meanwhile, boasts a demographic makeup much different from most other higher education institutions. Nearly a third of students at the New School hail from abroad, with a majority of Asian background.

The large international population sets the school apart, in addition to its history of global affiliations. In 1921, Parsons initiated a satellite school in Paris, becoming the first art and design school in the United States to found a campus abroad. Parsons today shares affiliations with La Escuela de Diseno in the Dominican Republic. Additionally, many academic programs organize short-term classes, external partnerships, and research-based projects that take students abroad. Informal university partnerships can now be found in fifteen other cities around the world, including Shanghai.

However, traditionally underrepresented populations, particularly African American students, remain low, reflecting an overall trend in design schools across the country (Parsons is a little higher than the national average for design schools). While Hispanic students comprise 10 percent of the population, and Asian Americans 16 percent, African Americans remain underrepresented at 5 percent of the total student body.

Joel Towers, executive dean at Parsons, sees the dearth of diversity at design schools representative of an overall trend in design professionals nationwide.

So how does one attract people of diverse background? Towers believes broadening the pool of applicants will help improve the odds that diverse students will be interested and apply to the school, eventually improving diversity overall. “We can’t recruit students if they’re not applying,” says Towers. He goes even further to suggest that potential students need to see the benefits and viabilities of having a design degree and career.

Increasing the compositional diversity of Parsons’ faculty and staff has become an essential part of attracting and retaining diverse students. With new 2007 comprehensive diversity guidelines intact, initial efforts have included evaluating hiring processes and recruitment and retention strategies to identify barriers towards access to Parsons. For faculty, the gender ratio is very even, which is something of an anomaly in higher education. Faculty diversity could be improved, though, to reflect the diverse student body, says Towers.

“We are very cognizant of trying to diversify our faculty, and maintain a high quality and diverse perspective on the education. The diversity initiative is another way of reminding us of this,” says Towers.

Aside from improving compositional faculty diversity, Parsons, through a variety of scholarships and free events, strives to make its physical and human resources available to a diverse student body. Programs such as the Parsons Scholars Program, which provides scholarship opportunities for students attending New York City public schools, and the Parsons’ Pre-College Academy, exemplify the school’s commitment to exploring innovative, accessible educational models.

“This helps them understand both pathways into study and the possibilities of work that are represented by this course of study. We have to start there,” says Towers.

The Pre-College Academy scholars spend summers and Saturdays for three years beginning from their sophomore year until they graduate. More than 80 percent of Parsons Scholars are African American and Hispanic, and 12 percent are Asian American.

“In addition to their extensive studio work, they are exposed to different kinds of careers that are available to them in the fields of art and design, which is done through studio visits, field trips, and having guest speakers come in and work with them,” adds Nadia Williams, director of the Pre-College Academy Scholars Program.

The program also helps guide them through the extensive college admissions process, something which can be daunting to students and families that don’t have experience with it. The effort Parsons has placed in the program has paid off: the number of students participating has tripled over the past few years. Additionally, the Scholars have proved to be a pipeline for Parsons, so to speak, with eight out of thirteen students last year attending the school.

Parsons isn’t the only school hoping to increase diversity. Other schools that are participating in mentoring and outreach programs include The Pratt Institute and Cooper Hewitt.

“A lot of people need to be [involved] in this effort, it’s not just something that one school can or should do,” reiterates Towers.

The setting of New York City, with its melting pot of cultures and ethnicities, adds another facet to and influence on diversity at Parsons. This is something that many other design schools do not have—and also what may be responsible for attracting diverse students.

“Places like New York City, among one of the most diverse and culturally complex places on earth, are natural environments for creativity and innovation to occur,” says Towers. Additionally, he noted the importance of the city as a design capital. “Both the number of designers and the diversity of designers—there are role models. There are opportunities for young people, even in high school, to see themselves as designers at some time in the future.”