Bridging the Gap: Challenges in Achieving Racial and Ethnic Equity in Higher Education

Racial and Ethnic Equity in Higher Education

In recent years, educational institutions have vocally professed their commitment to fostering racial diversity among both students and faculty. However, a recent analysis conducted by McKinsey & Company suggests that these claims may be more rhetoric than reality. Higher education in the United States grapples with a complex history, and addressing racial disparities remains a formidable challenge.

To put it in perspective, at the current rate, it would take approximately 70 years for colleges and universities to enroll enough Asian, Black, Latina/o, and Indigenous American students to even moderately reflect the demographics of America. Notably, this demographic would be predominantly comprised of Latina/o students. For Native American and Black students, the timeline is even more disheartening, requiring over 300 years to achieve a representative student body.

The McKinsey analysis, titled “Racial and Ethnic Equity in U.S. Higher Education,” reveals a disconcerting reality. It sheds light on the hurdles faced by educational institutions, such as flawed and incomplete racial enrollment data, insufficient reflection on their own racist history, and a lack of substantial investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Since 2020, more than 130 research institutions have publicly shared their plans and aspirations to diversify their student bodies and staff. They aim to create equitable and inclusive communities where individuals of color enjoy the same resources and a sense of belonging as their white counterparts. Notably, at least 95 percent of these institutions have senior diversity, equity, and inclusion executives. However, the report suggests a disconnect between these stated efforts and the actual outcomes.

While some institutions have seen recent increases in Latina/o enrollment, Black students, Native American students, and faculty from underrepresented populations have experienced little to no growth from 2013 to 2020. Shockingly, only 8 percent of institutions boast a student body that mirrors America’s racial diversity, coupled with a graduation rate for students of color equivalent to that of white students.

In 2020, merely 44 percent of two- and four-year colleges met the criteria for student representational parity based on the racial and ethnic demographics of their students’ home states. The report meticulously analyzes the racial and ethnic composition of first-year undergraduate classes, highlighting disparities in each institution’s pursuit of parity.

These disparities stem from interrelated and complex reasons. Insufficient K-12 education quality, selective admissions practices, and a lack of faculty diversity represent only a fraction of the barriers impeding the enrollment of underrepresented groups in higher education. Some challenges, like affordability and housing, can be addressed more readily. However, subtler deterrents, including campus climate issues, necessitate in-depth institutional research to be identified and rectified.

To attract and retain a more diverse student body, colleges and universities must take several actions. First, they should engage in introspection, acknowledging their own racist histories and assessing campus culture. Next, institutions must evaluate their student-recruitment strategies and increase investments in diversity initiatives. This could involve expanding dual-enrollment programs, providing debt relief for students, and establishing partnerships with minority-serving institutions.

Of these actions, Duwain Pinder, a leader at the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility, identifies two that institutions often struggle with the most. The first is self-reflection, a process that demands grappling with the troubling aspects of an institution’s history. For centuries, many institutions systematically excluded nonwhite students while benefiting from practices such as Native American genocide and the enslavement of Black individuals.

Additionally, institutions must set more precise equity goals and hold themselves accountable for achieving them. Some notable examples include Johns Hopkins University’s decision to reduce legacy admissions to make room for more students of color and the University of Massachusetts’ commitment to allocate 20 percent of its hiring budget to recruit and retain faculty members from historically marginalized groups.

Pinder emphasizes that racial diversity and equity must permeate every facet of an institution. This includes scholarship distribution, curriculum design, faculty teaching methods, and community engagement. In sum, racial and ethnic equity should not be a mere afterthought but a strategic imperative that encompasses the entire institution’s mission and operations.