Enrichment Education

It will take 70 years for universities to fully reflect underrepresented students: report

“By pursuing racial-equity goals, the higher-education sector may achieve gains in core areas of impact.”
empty lecture hall
The Associated Press/ Paul Iverson

Story at a glance

  • In recent years, incremental progress has been made to increase representation at higher education institutions.

  • But under the status quo, 70 years will pass until underrepresented populations are fully reflected in higher education. 

  • According to new research, even more time will pass before racial parity is achieved in faculty representation. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect it will take 1,000 years at the current pace for the diversification of full-time faculty ranks to reach parity for all not-for-profit institutions, according to updated information from McKinsey.

Throughout history, U.S. colleges and universities have served as catalysts for social progress.

However, even though more than half of all high school graduates will be people of color by 2036, new data from McKinsey & Company indicates 70 years will pass before these students are fully represented in all higher education not-for-profit institutions. 

This statistic is also surprising given 95 percent of research intensive institutions in the United States currently employ a senior Diversity, Equity and Inclusion executive. 

For faculty from underrepresented populations (URPs), under the status quo it would take 1,000 years to reach parity for at not-for-profit institutions assessed. 

Among both faculty and undergraduates, data show Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American populations are underrepresented in higher education, authors wrote in the McKinsey report, noting these groups often tend to have worse academic outcomes based on graduation rates.

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Currently, “only 8 percent of institutions have at least equitable student representation while also helping students from URPs graduate at the same rate as the general US undergraduate population,” authors said.

Slow current trends are to blame for the incremental progress expected in the next 70 years, while between 2013 and 2020, research has shown “effectively no progress” in Black and Native American student and faculty representation. 

In 2013, 38 percent of not-for-profit institutions assessed had a more diverse makeup than expected based on a given home state’s population. In 2020, this number increased to 44 percent. Researchers used this rate to estimate the year representational parity will be reached, “but that growth would be driven entirely by increases in the share of Hispanic and Latino students,” they wrote. 

Within this time frame, one-third of four-year institutions improved racial and ethic representation and URP completion rates at a higher rate than the natural growth rate of these populations, measured at 2 percent. 

But disparities in the U.S. education system as a whole play a large part in underrepresentation of students at the institution level, authors explained.

In addition, systemic racial inequity and the shifting structure of academia means faculty from URPs are less likely than their white counterparts to ascend ranks within institutions. 

Eighty-eight percent of not-for-profit colleges and universities in the United States currently have full-time faculties that are less diverse than the 2020 U.S. population, researchers added. 

Because most faculty positions require at least a four-year degree, one solution to this problem could be addressing the lack of advanced-degree holders. 

According to authors, additional actions could include institutions’ reflecting on their role in ongoing racial inequities, completing a historical review of their systems’ impact, realigning resources to better address racial equity, embedding these new priorities into the institution’s culture and implementing sector wide reform.

“By pursuing racial-equity goals, the higher-education sector may achieve gains in core areas of impact,” they concluded. 

“If sustained, these investments in institutional action could benefit students, faculty, community members, and society.”

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