Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education (2024)

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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,1Peace Bransberger and Colleen Falkenstern, Knocking at the college door: Projections of high school graduates through 2037 – Executive summary, Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), December 2020. and McKinsey analysis shows that highly research-intensive (R1) institutions (131 as of 20202Institutions with very high research activity as assessed by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.) 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.3Two examples are the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and the Liberal Arts Diversity Consortium.

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.4For a closer look at the data behind the racial and ethnic representation among students and faculty in higher education, see Diana Ellsworth, Erin Harding, Jonathan Law, and Duwain Pinder, “Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education: Students and faculty,” McKinsey, July 14, 2022. Not included in this discussion are Asian Americans, who face a distinct set of challenges in higher education. These issues deserve a separate discussion.

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 2020.5For a closer look at college completion rates, see Diana Ellsworth, Erin Harding, Jonathan Law, and Duwain Pinder, “Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education: Completion rates,” McKinsey, July 14, 2022.

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“Public high school graduation rates,” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), US Department of Education, May 2021; “Secondary school completion: College and career readiness benchmarks,” American Council on Education (ACE), 2020; “Secondary school completion: Participation in advanced placement,” ACE, 2020. Evidence suggests that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating these high school inequities,7For more, see Emma Dorn, Bryan Hanco*ck, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg, “COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning,” McKinsey, July 27, 2021. 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“College enrollment rates,” NCES, US Department of Education, May 2022.

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).9For institution-specific completion data, see Diana Ellsworth, Erin Harding, Jonathan Law, and Duwain Pinder, “Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education: Completion rates,” McKinsey, July 14, 2022.


Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education (1)

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.10Colleen Flaherty, “The souls of Black professors,” Inside Higher Ed, October 21, 2020; Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez, “Race on campus: Anti-CRT laws take aim at colleges,” email, The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26, 2022; Mike Lauer, “Trends in diversity within the NIH-funded workforce,” National Institutes of Health (NIH), August 7, 2018. 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).


Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education (2)

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“Degrees conferred by race/ethnicity and sex,” NCES, US Department of Education, accessed June 22, 2022. 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.12See the full report for more details.

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.

Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education (3)

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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.13Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman, 2021 Survey of College and University Presidents, Inside Higher Ed, 2021. 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.14Richard Vedder, “Why is public support for state universities declining?,” Forbes, May 24, 2018; Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, “Colleges lost 465,000 students this fall. The continued erosion of enrollment is raising alarm.,” Washington Post, January 13, 2022; Emma Dorn, Andre Dua, and Jonathan Law, “Rising costs and stagnating completion rates: Who is bucking the trend?,” McKinsey, April 2022. 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.15Pell Grants are awarded by the US Department of Education to low-income students seeking postsecondary education. For more, see “Federal Pell Grants are usually awarded only to undergraduate students,” US Department of Education, accessed June 29, 2022. Sara Weissman, “Johns Hopkins ditched legacy admissions to boost diversity – and it worked,” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, February 5, 2020. Significantly, the change has made no meaningful difference in alumni giving.16Scott Simon, “Johns Hopkins sees jump in low-income students after ending legacy admissions,” National Public Radio (NPR), January 25, 2020.

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.

Diana Ellsworth is a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office, Erin Harding is an associate partner in the Chicago office, Jonathan Law is a senior partner in the Southern California office and leader of the global higher education practice, and Duwain Pinder is a partner in the Ohio office and leader in the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility.

The authors wish to thank Arthur Bianchi, Avery Cambridge, Elisia Ceballo-Countryman, Judy D’Agostino, Ayebea Darko, Maclaine Fields, Kyle Hutzler, Charmaine Lester, and Sadie Pate for their contributions.

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Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education (2024)


What are the racial inequities in higher education? ›

In 2020, Black, Hispanic or Latino, and Indigenous people comprised 32 percent of the population and only 19 percent of higher education management. People of color also disproportionately work low-wage jobs at higher education institutions; 40 percent of service workers were from an underrepresented group.

Why is racial diversity important in higher education? ›

It promotes personal growth-and a healthy society. Diversity challenges stereotyped preconceptions; it encourages critical thinking; and it helps students learn to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds. It strengthens communities and the workplace.

Is there diversity in higher education? ›

According to 2022 data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), diversity in college enrollment has increased with each decade. The representation of all racial/ethnic groups increased on college campuses between 1980 and 2022, except for white students.

Are minorities underrepresented in higher education? ›

A solid majority of California's future college-age population will come from demographic groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education-including Latinos, African Americans, and those who are low income or the first in their families to go to college.

What are the four 4 social factors associated with educational inequality? ›

Unequal educational outcomes are attributed to several variables, including family of origin, gender, and social class. Achievement, earnings, health status, and political participation also contribute to educational inequality within the United States and other countries.

What are the most underrepresented groups in higher education? ›

Historically Underrepresented Minority Students (HURMS)

Traditionally, Historically Underrepresented Minority (HURM) students are members of groups that have “historically comprised a minority of the US population.” This typically includes African Americans, American Indians/Alaskan Natives, and Hispanics.

What does diversity look like in higher education? ›

Diversity can include race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, geographical representation, political beliefs and more. However, studies also show race, gender and sexual orientation are nearly always the top three concerns for those working in the field. But inclusion is equally important.

How do you promote diversity and inclusion in college? ›

6 Ways to Promote Inclusivity in Higher Education
  1. Rethink policies. It's time to challenge institutional norms. ...
  2. Ensure inclusivity is embedded in your institutional structures. ...
  3. Use inclusive language. ...
  4. Create goals and track progress. ...
  5. Help campus leaders understand their role. ...
  6. Educate campus leaders about inclusion.
May 18, 2022

Why is equity important in college? ›

Diverse and inclusive faculty lead to better student outcomes. Diversity among faculty members, along with DEI programs that promote diversity and inclusion training among professors, can lead to higher student retention and a positive impact on students from marginalized groups.

What is equity in higher education? ›

Equity refers to achieving parity in student educational outcomes, regardless of race and ethnicity. It moves beyond issues of access and places success outcomes for students of color at center focus.

What are the consequences of lack of diversity in higher education? ›

Institutions may lack diversity among their students, faculty and staff. A lack of diversity may indicate a culture perceived as unwelcoming or even hostile to certain groups of people. This can lead to a negative impact on the institution's reputation, recruitment and admissions and may also lead to legal challenges.

What are the barriers to education for minorities? ›

The most significant contributors to educational disparities amongst the nation's racial and ethnic minorities include poverty, segregation and racial school districting, inadequate language resources for English language learners, bullying, and lack of access to health resources.

What is the most educated minority in the US? ›

African immigrants have been among the more highly educated group in the United States since the 1990s. This phenomenon is related to the large "brain drain" in Africa.

Which racial group has the highest rate of educational attainment? ›

Percentage of educational attainment in the United States in 2018, by ethnicity
EnthnicityHigh school graduate or moreCollege graduate or more
Asian and Pacific Islander90.5%56.5%
1 more row
Jun 2, 2023

What types of inequality are there in the US education system? ›

Factors contributing to inequalities
  • Race. Race is often a big contributor to inequalities in education, and it can explain the widening achievement and discipline gaps between white students and students of color. ...
  • Socioeconomic status. ...
  • Private vs. ...
  • Language barriers.

What are the problems with inequality in education? ›

Inequality hinders education access and quality for marginalized students, perpetuating poverty. Overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities, and discrimination contribute to poor learning outcomes.

What are structural inequities in education? ›

Structural inequality exists where poor children must attend public schools while rich children can attend private schools. Before the 1950s, school segregation was allowed by federal law. During that time, many girls were guided toward home economics rather than math, for example.

Who has the most unequal education systems in the world? ›

South Africa has one of the most unequal school systems in the world. Children in the top 200 schools achieve more distinctions in mathematics than children in the next 6,600 schools combined.

What does underrepresented in higher education mean? ›

Low-income, first-generation, LGBT+, and minority students are often underrepresented on college campuses; this means that they make up only a small fraction of the college's total population. These underrepresented groups face unique challenges both in applying to and attending college.

How does cultural diversity impact on learning? ›

When working and learning with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures present in the classroom, students gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. It also teaches students how to use their own strengths and points of view to contribute in a diverse working environment.

How do universities benefit from diversity? ›

The most diverse universities create places where all students can learn and grow: They expand student awareness, welcome multiple perspectives, and help build social skills.

What is an example of a diversity statement in higher ed? ›

I am a firm believer that all higher educational institutions, particularly universities should strive to build community of individuals with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, free of discrimination based on racial and ethnic origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, social economic status or religious ...

Does race matter in college admission? ›

California's population is already extremely diverse in terms of race. Still, state schools consider a student's ethnic background, even though California schools tend to avoid using a student's ethnicity as a primary deciding factor for admission.

Why is DEI important in higher education? ›

DEI is important in a student body, and it's important for students to see DEI as a priority at their college or university. For instance, it's been shown that a focus on DEI in faculty recruitment can impact student outcomes at an institution. Diversity on campus improves cultural awareness and critical thinking.

How do you attract diverse students to college? ›

10 best practices for hiring diverse college students
  1. Recruit your strategic hires where diversity thrives. ...
  2. Promote your diversity brand. ...
  3. Partner with professional associations and student groups that foster diversity. ...
  4. Attend or even host your own virtual career events that target minority students.
Oct 19, 2020

What is an example of equity in education? ›

An example of equity in education can be found in teachers who are able to adapt their teaching style to match a student's learning capabilities. Some students thrive as auditory learners, who process information out loud and ask questions as needed.

How do you promote equity in college? ›

Advice for the field
  1. Define equity. Ensure that key stakeholders—faculty, students and staff—have shared goals for and definitions of equity.
  2. Listen to students. Recognize their perspective and respect their full range of strengths and needs.
  3. Support the whole student.
Dec 14, 2020

What is the difference between equality and equity in education? ›

Equality means each individual or group of people is given the same resources or opportunities. Equity recognizes that each person has different circ*mstances and allocates the exact resources and opportunities needed to reach an equal outcome.

What is inclusion in higher education? ›

The Taishoff Center defines inclusion as the incorporation of students with disabilities into general academic courses on campus, across disciplines and departments with non-disabled peers.

How does diversity relate to education? ›

Teaching for diversity refers to acknowledging a range of differences in the classroom. Teaching for inclusion signifies embracing difference. Teaching for equity allows the differences to transform the way we think, teach, learn and act such that all experiences and ways of being are handled with fairness and justice.

Why is a lack of diversity bad in schools? ›

These nonwhite schools are segregated by poverty as well as race, creating an unstable, often dangerous education experience, with high teacher turnover and scant resources.

Why is diversity and inclusion important? ›

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is more than policies, programs, or headcounts. Equitable employers outpace their competitors by respecting the unique needs, perspectives and potential of all their team members. As a result, diverse and inclusive workplaces earn deeper trust and more commitment from their employees.

What are the three main challenges we face within equality and diversity? ›

Overcoming three barriers to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion
  • Unconscious bias.
  • Lack of representation.
  • Privilege.
Nov 16, 2022

What are examples of inequality in education? ›

1. Schools serving more students of Color are less likely to offer advanced courses and GATE programs than schools serving mostly White populations. Additonally, students of Color are less likely than their White peers to be enrolled in those courses and programs within schools that have those offerings.

What are the inequalities in education in the US? ›

Disparities in academic access among students in the United States are the result of several factors including: government policies, school choice, family wealth, parenting style, implicit bias towards the race or ethnicity of the student, and the resources available to the student and their school.

What kind of inequalities are there in education around the world? ›

Teachers in poorer areas tend to have less training and to receive less in-service support. Most countries are very diverse. When a curriculum is overloaded and is the same for everyone, some students, generally those from rural areas, cultural minorities or living in poverty find little meaning in what is taught.

What are the 7 health disparities? ›

Health and health care disparities are often viewed through the lens of race and ethnicity, but they occur across a broad range of dimensions. For example, disparities occur across socioeconomic status, age, geography, language, gender, disability status, citizenship status, and sexual identity and orientation.

What is the difference between inequity and inequality in education? ›

Inequity and inequality: the definitions

Inequity refers to a lack of equity, which means “justice” or “fairness.” Where there's inequity in a community, it means injustice, unfairness, and bias are being perpetuated. That might sound exactly like inequality, but inequities are what cause inequality.

What are the facts about education inequality? ›

Girls make up 53 percent of the global population of children out of school. Thirty-nine percent of the worldwide poor have no formal education at all. 15 million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn to read and write in primary school, compared to about 10 million boys.

What is the impact of educational inequality in America? ›

Inequality hinders education access and quality for marginalized students, perpetuating poverty. Overcrowded classrooms, inadequate facilities, and discrimination contribute to poor learning outcomes.

How do you address inequity in education? ›

Stop the expansion of charter and private schools as it is not affordable for all students and creates segregation. Deprioritize test based funding because it discriminates against disadvantaged students. Support teachers financially, as in offering higher salaries and benefits for teachers to improve retention.

Which country has the highest education inequality? ›

Conversely, Australia, Slovakia and New Zealand rank as the most unequal in the world on a combined ranking of education inequality across pre-school, primary and secondary schooling. The report measured inequality in pre-school education by participation in pre-school in the year before primary school entry.

What is the biggest health disparity in the United states? ›

Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death across race, ethnicity, and gender (see Table 2-1). African Americans were 30 percent more likely than whites to die prematurely from heart disease in 2010, and African American men are twice as likely as whites to die prematurely from stroke (HHS, 2016b,d).

What are three overall health disparities in the US? ›

Examples of Health Disparities
  • Mortality.
  • Life expectancy.
  • Burden of disease.
  • Mental health.
  • Uninsured/underinsured.
  • Lack of access to care.

What is the health equity in the United states? ›

Health equity is the state in which everyone has a fair and just opportunity to attain their highest level of health.


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