Diversity in Higher Education: Statistics, Gaps, and Resources

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A group of college students works on computers in a classroom.

Statistics demonstrate some progress has been made toward increasing diversity in higher education and improving educational opportunities for individuals in certain groups. The U.S. Census Bureau data shows progress for educational attainment across various ethnic groups between 2010 and 2019; however, the data also indicates gaps between white students and those in some minority groups. For example, over 40% of white students earned at least a bachelor’s degree in 2019, while only 18.8% of Hispanic/Latinx students did, according to the Census Bureau.

Other data demonstrating gaps in diversity in higher education include enrollment of 2019 high school graduates. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 66.2% of all students who graduated from high school between January and October 2019 were enrolled in a college or university, a drop of nearly 3% from the previous year. The data shows that college enrollment was highest among Asian and white students and lower among Black and Latinx students. A breakdown of 2019 enrollment by race/ethnicity based on BLS data is as follows:

  • White: 89.9%
  • Asian: 66.9%
  • Hispanic/Latinx: 63.4%
  • Black: 50.7%

The National Center for Education Statistics, Undergraduate Enrollment provides comprehensive data for anyone interested in obtaining more education statistics relevant to undergraduate enrollment.

How can leaders and decision-makers in higher education address these persistent issues? A look into the factors that help create the diversity gaps is crucial to improving diversity in higher education.

The Diversity Gaps in Higher Education

School segregation and educational inequity are closely related, according to The New York Times, which reports more than 50% of schoolchildren in the U.S. are in racially concentrated districts. Some districts are also segregated by income. These factors intensify the diversity gaps in higher education.

Other causes for these gaps include structural inequalities, disparities in access to resources, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic. A deeper dive into these issues is a critical step in creating more equity in education.

Structural Inequality

Institutions across business, education, government, law, media, and other sectors have policies that hinder ethnic and racial groups from succeeding in their academic endeavors and advancing in their lives. Collectively, these policies form the backbone of structural inequality, a term that describes a system limiting groups from obtaining resources enabling social and economic progress.

Structural inequality is often a product of socioeconomic disadvantage for some groups. For example, wealthier parents can send their children to private schools with reputations for academic excellence. On the other hand, parents with financial disadvantages often have little to no options on where to send their children to school. For students, this may mean attending a low-performing school, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as those in the bottom 10% in their state.

Resources About Structural Inequality

The following resources provide information about structural inequality in higher education.

Disparities in Access

High schools in communities with large numbers of underrepresented minorities, including Black and Latinx students, lack access to the educational resources they need to prepare for college and careers. These disparities, which lay the foundation for diversity gaps in higher education, are also present in schools residing in communities with high populations of students in poverty.

Disparities in access are often the result of funding gaps. Districts with the largest populations of Black, Latinx, or Native American students, according to The Education Trust, receive about 13% less in per-student funding than other school districts. This lack of proper funding can lead to several consequences:

  • Underfunded schools often lack the resources to prepare students for success in higher education and their careers.
  • Students are deprived of opportunities to learn at the same level as students in wealthier neighborhoods.
  • With smaller budgets for technology, students in disadvantaged schools often particularly struggle with STEM-related subjects.

Resources, Data, and Statistics: Disparities in Access

The following resources provide information about disparities in access in higher education.

The Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic and structural inequities have furthered disparities. How will school closures impact academic achievement over the long term? McKinsey & Company reports learning loss during the pandemic will likely impact low-income, Black, and Latinx students the most, in ways that can hurt these students for a lifetime. Reasons for that impact include:

  • Limited to no access to high-quality technology necessary for remote learning
  • Distractive home environments that aren’t conducive to studying and learning
  • Devices that need to be shared with others in students’ homes
  • No access to high-speed internet
  • Lack of parental academic supervision

The global pandemic also impacts students by hampering their ability to find employment to support their basic needs or pay their student loans. While the U.S. government’s stimulus checks have helped many Americans, countless college students are left to support themselves, according to The Century Foundation.

Resources About the Pandemic’s Impact on Higher Education

The following resources provide information about the impact of COVID-19 in higher education.

The Benefits of Closing the Gap

Working toward the elimination of the diversity gap in higher education can yield numerous dividends. For example, a recent Forbes article reports that diversity boosts innovation and financial results in business. It can also yield key socioeconomic benefits for affected individuals as they prepare to enter the workforce.

Diverse environments help promote teamwork and performance, lead to better outcomes for businesses, and improve the economy. For example, according to a McKinsey & Company report, the U.S. economy would have been much larger in 2019 if school achievement gaps had been closed in 2009.

Additional benefits include:

  • Enhanced learning environments. Diversity in higher education enriches the learning experience for students, providing opportunities to interact with people from many different backgrounds. This improves collaboration skills and innovation.
  • Improved cultural competency. Diversity in higher education prepares graduates for an increasingly globalized world, providing core competencies to navigate their careers in dynamic, multicultural work environments.
  • Increased opportunity. Diversity in education increases chances for minorities to pursue high-level positions that may require advanced degrees, which give students from historically underrepresented communities opportunities to see themselves in their leaders.
  • Stronger workforce. Closing the diversity gap can have an impact on the workforce in general. Diversity encourages coworkers to respect different nationalities and be more thoughtful of each other. This contributes to productivity and teamwork.

Resources About the Benefits of Diversity

Further insight into the diversity gap in higher education and the potential benefits of closing it can be found in the following resources:

The Importance of Diversity in Higher Education

Higher education has become more diversified in the past decade. According to the Census Bureau, more people age 25 and older earned a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2019 than in 2010. Here’s a breakdown by race/ethnicity:

  • Asian: from 52.4% in 2010 to 58.1% in 2019
  • White: from 33.2% in 2010 to 40.1% in 2019
  • Black: from 19.8% in 2010 to 26.1% in 2019
  • Hispanic/Latinx: from 13.9% in 2010 to 18.8% in 2019

Still, disparities remain. While an increasing number of undergraduates come from poor families, they are typically enrolled in less-selective colleges, according to the Pew Research Center.

A primary aim of diversity in higher education is to diminish gaps between white populations and racial and ethnic minority populations. By encouraging and cultivating a higher level of diversity in higher education, schools can help deliver numerous benefits to society. For example, a key aspect of a diverse campus is the influence on an individual’s worldview, which can help prepare students for the real world and improve their chances of success in a globalized workplace.

Equity in education is also important for upward economic mobility. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows the completion of a four-year degree delivers positive financial returns for families from disadvantaged backgrounds.

How Universities Can Help Close the Gap

Colleges and universities need to close the diversity gap on their campuses to ensure students are prepared with the competencies and understanding necessary to succeed in a rapidly changing world. Universities can use any of several strategies to help close this gap and mitigate its effects.

Improve Mentoring and Guidance

Mentoring can play a critical role in improving diversity. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report “effective mentoring relationships have an overall positive effect on academic achievement, retention, and degree attainment, as well as on career success and satisfaction.” Colleges and universities should reflect on biases and prejudices that can damage relationships between mentors and mentees and incorporate active listening and cultural responsiveness to optimize the impact of mentoring.

Set Clearer, More Complete Long-Term Achievement Benchmarks

In its 2019 report, “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education,” the American Council on Education notes about 45% of undergraduate students on college campuses identify as people of color, a significant gain of 30% over two decades. This statistic offers a glimmer of promise that college campuses are becoming more diverse to reflect today’s multicultural society. Some colleges are doing better than others. By setting long-term benchmarks, measured against national rates, universities, and colleges can further improve diversity on their campuses.

Increase Diversity Among Faculty and Staff

The statistic about diversity on college campuses noted above reveals leadership and faculty in colleges and universities still fall short of reflecting students’ diversity. By hiring more diverse faculty and staff, colleges and universities can help ensure their leadership reflects their student populations’ better and mirrors society at large.

Create a Rigorous Yet Personalized Learning Environment

A personalized learning approach matches students’ preferred pace of study. Personalized learning provides an adaptive system that makes use of student data to give instructors an in-depth view of student progress. This information helps them understand and assess what a student knows, identify proficiency gaps, and create interventions to get students back on track.

Resources for Leaders: Statistics and Strategies

Colleges and universities can reference the following resources to uncover statistics and strategies that may help in closing the diversity gap on their campuses.

Closing the Diversity Gap Means Opportunities for All

Diversity in higher education is a civil rights issue. By closing the diversity gap, colleges and universities are preparing students for college and work, improving their social and economic standing, and empowering them with the resources, knowledge, and skills to contribute to society for decades to come.