Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education

Institutions have the potential to use their roles in teaching and learning, research scholarship and creative expression, and service to the community to collectively work toward greater equity.

Higher education in the United States (not-for-profit two-year and four-year colleges and universities) serves a diversifying society. By 2036, more than 50 percent of US high school graduates will be people of color, 1 and McKinsey analysis shows that highly research-intensive (R1) institutions (131 as of 2020 2 ) have publicly shared plans or aspirations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Ninety-five percent of R1 institutions also have a senior DEI executive, and diversity leaders in the sector have formed their own consortiums to share expertise. 3

Despite ongoing efforts, our analysis suggests that historically marginalized racial and ethnic populations—Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American and Pacific Islander—are still underrepresented in higher education among undergraduates and faculty and in leadership. Students from these groups also have worse academic outcomes as measured by graduation rates. Only 8 percent of institutions have at least equitable student representation while also helping students from underrepresented populations graduate at the same rate as the general US undergraduate population. 4

These finding are not novel, but what is significant is the slow rate of progress. Current rates of change suggest that it would take about 70 years for all not-for-profit institutions to reflect underrepresented students fully in their incoming student population, primarily driven by recent increases in Hispanic and Latino student attendance. For Black and Native American students and for faculty from all underrepresented populations, there was effectively no progress from 2013 to 2020. 5

Intensified calls for racial and ethnic equity in every part of society have made the issue particularly salient. In this article, we outline some of the key insights from our report on racial and ethnic equity in higher education in the United States. We report our analysis of racial and ethnic representation in student and faculty bodies and of outcomes for underrepresented populations. Then we discuss how institutions can meet goals around racial and ethnic equity.

A mirror of wider systemic inequities

Colleges and universities are places of teaching and learning, research and creative expression, and impact on surrounding communities. As the data and analysis in this report illustrate, these institutions have been reflections of existing racial and socioeconomic inequities across society.

These hierarchies include chronic disparities in outcomes throughout the education system. Consider that students from underrepresented populations still graduate from high school at lower rates compared to White and Asian students and tend to be less prepared for college. 6 Evidence suggests that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating these high school inequities, 7 which heavily influence the makeup of higher education’s student population. Forty-one percent of all 18- to 21-year-olds were enrolled in undergraduate studies in 2018 compared to 37 percent of Black students, 36 percent of Hispanic students, and 24 percent of American Indian students. 8

Our analysis suggests that higher education has opportunities to address many of these gaps. However, our analysis of student representation over time also suggests that progress has been uneven. In 2013, 38 percent of all not-for-profit institutions had a more diverse population than would be expected given the racial and ethnic makeup of the traditional college-going population—that is, 18- to 24-year-olds, our proxy for equitable racial representation—within a given home state. By 2020, that number was 44 percent. At this rate, the student bodies of not-for-profit institutions overall will reach representational parity in about 70 years, but that growth would be driven entirely by increases in the share of Hispanic and Latino students.

Many institutions have indicated that in addition to increasing student-body diversity, they also seek to improve graduation rates for students from underrepresented populations. A positive finding from our analysis is that nearly two-thirds of all students attend not-for-profit institutions with higher-than-average graduation rates for students from underrepresented populations. However, when we overlay institution representativeness with graduation rates, only 8 percent of students attend four-year institutions that have student bodies that reflect their students’ home states’ traditional college population and that help students from underrepresented populations graduate within six years at an above-average rate (Exhibit 1). 9

Most institutions have not simultaneously achieved representational parity for first-time students and at least average completion rates.
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In addition, our analysis shows that from 2013 to 2020, only one-third of four-year institutions had improved both racial and ethnic representation and completion rates for students from underrepresented populations at a higher rate than underrepresented populations’ natural growth rate in that period (2 percent). If we look at improvements in racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic representation among students, only 7 percent of four-year institutions have progressed.

Among faculty, complex reasons including the changing structure of academia and patterns of racial inequity in society mean that faculty members from underrepresented populations are less likely to be represented and to ascend the ranks than their White counterparts. 10 Additionally, representational disparity among faculty is more acute in R1 institutions. When we analyzed the full-time faculty population relative to the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher (given that most faculty positions require at least a bachelor’s degree), in 2020, approximately 75 percent of not-for-profit institutions were less diverse than the broader bachelor’s degree–attaining population, and 95 percent of institutions defined as R1 were less diverse. Additionally, the pace of change is slow: it would take nearly 300 years to reach parity for all not-for-profit institutions at the current pace and 450 years for R1 institutions.

Higher education’s collective aspirations for parity of faculty diversity could arguably be even greater. Faculty diversity could be compared to the total population (rather than just the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher) for several reasons. First, comparing faculty diversity to bachelor’s degree recipients incorporates existing inequities in higher-education access and completion across races and ethnicities (which have been highlighted above). Second, the impact of faculty (especially from the curriculum they create and teach, as well as the research, scholarship, and creative expression they produce) often has repercussions across the total US population.

Therefore, in this research, we compared faculty diversity to the total population. Our analysis shows that 88 percent of not-for-profit colleges and universities have full-time faculties that are less diverse than the US population as of 2020. That number rises to 99 percent for institutions defined as R1. Progress in diversifying full-time faculty ranks to match the total population over the past decade has been negligible; it would take more than 1,000 years at the current pace to reach parity for all not-for-profit institutions. (R1 institutions will never reach parity at current rates.) When looking at both faculty and students, few institutions are racially representative of the country; only 11 percent of not-for-profit institutions and 1 percent of R1 institutions are (Exhibit 2).

Only 1 percent of faculty at highly research-intensive institutions is diverse enough to reflect the US population.
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With faculty representativeness as the goal, it is important to highlight multiple opportunities to improve across the pipeline. From 2018 to 2019, there was a four-percentage-point gap between the percent of individuals from underrepresented populations with a bachelor’s degree and the percent of the total population with a bachelor’s degree. In the same period, there was a 12-percentage-point gap between the groups in regard to doctorate degrees, whose holders are a significant source for new full-time faculty. 11 Therefore, addressing the lack of advanced-degree holders is one near-term priority for moving toward parity. Additionally, multiple studies have highlighted that faculty from underrepresented populations have less success receiving funding, getting published, or having their recommendations adopted, despite high scientific novelty, which could be driving the increased gaps at R1 institutions. 12

Finally, colleges and universities are often prominent employers in their communities. University workforces reflect societal patterns of racialized occupational segregation, with employees of color disproportionately in low-salary, nonleadership roles. Our analysis suggests that these roles also shrunk by 2 to 3 percent from 2013 to 2020.

Institutional reflection and progress

Eighty-four percent of presidents in higher education who responded to a 2021 survey said issues of race and ethnicity have become more important for their institutions. 13 However, sectorwide challenges such as declining enrollment, greater public scrutiny—accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic—and stagnating completion rates can make institutional progress on racial and ethnic equity more complicated. 14 In this context, institutions looking to advance their goals around racial equity could consider five broad actions learned from their peers who are further along in their efforts:

  1. reflection
  2. review
  3. realignment
  4. response
  5. reform

Institutions looking to advance their goals around racial equity could consider five broad actions learned from their peers who are further along in their efforts.

While none of these strategies is a magic bullet, some or all of them may be useful for decision makers throughout higher education.

To start, decision makers and stakeholders at individual institutions could understand and reflect on their institution’s role in ongoing racial inequities before applying those insights in a review of its current systems. The initial reflection can create an environment of intellectual and psychological honesty and make conversations about each institution’s commitment to rectifying racial inequities feel more natural and productive.

After a comprehensive historical review, institutions could identify the ways in which their processes, systems, and norms contribute to the marginalization of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. For instance, universities could incorporate processes designed to boost racial equity in their administration of research and grant activities. Such processes would consider factors from researcher diversity to how the execution of the research may affect racial and ethnic groups differently.

Each institution could then realign its resources based on its stakeholders’ shared aspirations for racial equity. Decision makers could consider areas of initial focus, the breadth of impact they wish to have, and the institutional capabilities they can use to realize their goals.

Leaders may respond by embedding their new racial-equity priorities into their institution’s culture. This work involves incorporating racial equity as part of the strategic plan, dedicating sufficient resources to the effort, and assigning a senior leader and staff to support the president in implementing ideas and tracking progress. Clear and frequent communication to each institution’s stakeholders—including alumni, staff, and donors—at each stage of this work will ensure that people in every part of the institution and its extended community are progressing together toward a shared goal.

To be sure, many institutions have begun to explore measures that address some of the inequities embedded in higher education. Some of these actions may light the path for collective action by all institutions to achieve sectorwide reform. For instance, colleges and universities can provide learning opportunities more equitably if they eliminate race- and wealth-based advantages in admissions, such as legacy and donor admissions. Johns Hopkins University is one institution that has eliminated legacy admissions, which helped to increase the share of Federal Pell Grant–eligible students from 9 percent to 19 percent over the past decade. 15 Significantly, the change has made no meaningful difference in alumni giving. 16

As centers of research and creative expression, higher-education institutions could also consider targeted programs that support the work and progression of researchers from underrepresented populations. For example, the University of Massachusetts Boston allocates at least 20 percent of its faculty-hiring budget for pairing a specialized hire with a complementary hire from a historically marginalized group.

Finally, universities could ensure that their financial success is translated into positive outcomes for the surrounding communities. Action from the higher-education sector could result in institutions—especially ones with significant endowments—committing to investing in their surrounding communities.


By pursuing racial-equity goals, the higher-education sector may achieve gains in core areas of impact. If sustained, these investments in institutional action could benefit students, faculty, community members, and society.

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