AAC&U News, March 2019
Facts & Figures

College Students Are More Diverse Than Ever. Faculty and Administrators Are Not

The student population in US higher education is more diverse than ever. According to a new report by the American Council on Education, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report, students of color made up just 29.6 percent of the undergraduate student population in 1996, increasing to 45.2 percent in 2016. The share of graduate students of color increased from 20.8 to 32.0 percent in the same time period. However, despite these gains, many areas of higher education continue to underserve and underrepresent students of color. With more than two hundred indicators, the report disaggregates student enrollment, persistence, and completion rates as well as economic indicators like borrowing, debt, and unemployment after graduation. The report also examines the racial and ethnic make up of full-time faculty, staff, and administrators, finding that these positions of power in the academy remain “predominantly white.”

A Diversifying Student Population

  • Since 1997, the US population has grown more and more diverse. In 2017, the population was 61 percent white, 18 percent Hispanic, 12.3 percent black, 5.7 percent Asian, 1.9 percent one or more race, 0.7 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.3 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
  • Among the total population of “traditional” college-age students (eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds), 40.9 percent were enrolled in college in 2016 compared with 35.5 percent in 1996.
  • A big part of the increasing diversity in higher education is “a growing Hispanic population that is seeking higher education at levels not before seen,” the report said. “For Hispanics in 2017, each 10-year age cohort had higher rates of college attainment than the next-oldest group.”
  • Overall, Asian young adults (57.2 percent) were the most likely to enroll in college, while Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders (20.4 percent) and American Indians or Alaska Natives (18.8 percent) were the least likely.
  • More recent high school graduates ages sixteen to twenty-four were enrolled in college in 2016 than in 1996 (69.5 percent, compared with 64.7 percent). Black young adults with a high school diploma (or similar degree) are significantly less likely than others to enroll in college shortly after graduating (see fig. 1).
  • The share of Hispanic high school graduates attending college had the largest increase of 13 percentage points in those twenty years, while the share of black high school graduates increased just 1.1 percentage points.

Figure 1.

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Achievement Gaps in Enrollment and Achievement

  • In 2017, more Americans twenty-five years old and older had received at least an associate’s degree than at any point in the last twenty years (44.5 percent, compared with 31.1 percent in 1997).
  • Though more and more Hispanic students are enrolling, Hispanic men and women and American Indian or Alaska Native men were the least likely to have received a higher education in 2017, “with most holding a high school credential or less (ranging from 54.5 percent among American Indian or Alaska Native men to 63.4 percent among Hispanic men),” the report said.
  • By comparison, more than half of Asian adults had attained a bachelor’s degree (30.7 percent) or an advanced degree (an additional 24.7 percent).
  • In what the report calls “an encouraging note, students of color who received a bachelor’s degree in 2007–08 were more likely than their White peers to enter graduate education within four years.”

Barriers to Black Student Success: Low Persistence Rates, High Dropout Rates, and Lots of Debt

  • According to the report, there have been encouraging gains for black students in the last twenty years: they are more likely to have completed high school, enroll in an undergraduate or graduate program, or finish a graduate degree.
  • However, the report found that “too many Black students fare poorly in America’s postsecondary education system. At both the undergraduate and graduate levels, advances in Black students’ enrollment and attainment have been accompanied by some of the lowest persistence rates, highest undergraduate dropout rates, highest borrowing rates, and largest debt burdens of any group.”
  • Black students also experienced the widest gender gap of any racial group in 2016, when “62.2 percent of Black undergraduates and 70.2 percent of Black graduate students were women.”
  • In a trend they find “deeply concerning,” the report found that black students had high levels of borrowing and debt across degree levels (from associate’s to doctorates) and institution type (public, private nonprofit, or for-profit).
  • At the associate’s level, 67.2 percent of black students who earned a degree “owed an average of $22,303, compared with $18,501 for students overall,” the report said.
  • Of black students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2016, 86.4 percent borrowed money to finance their education and still owed $34,010 on average, significantly more than the $29,669 owed by 2016 graduates overall.
  • These levels of borrowing were even more pronounced by the time graduate students earned a PhD (see fig. 2).

Figure 2.

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“Predominantly White” Faculty, Staff, and Administrators

  • While the racial and ethnic make-up of students in higher education has become more and more diverse, “college faculty, staff, and administrators remain predominantly White,” the report said.
  • Nearly three quarters (73.2 percent) of full-time faculty were white (see fig. 3).

Figure 3.

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  • The college presidency is overwhelmingly white and male (58.1 percent). White women make up another quarter (25 percent) of presidents, while men of color (11.8 percent) and especially women of color (5.1 percent) are underrepresented.
  • Among offices on campus, student affairs was the most likely to have a person of color as its highest-level administrator (see fig. 4).
  • According to the report, “Students were more likely to encounter people of color in service roles than in faculty or leadership positions. While people of color represented less than one-fifth of senior executives, 42.2 percent of service and maintenance staff and one-third of campus safety personnel were people of color.”

Figure 4.

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Unless otherwise cited, images and information in this report are included by permission of the American Council on Education from their recent report, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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