It will take 70 years for the U.S. college student population to reflect nation’s demographics, a new report shows

A study by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company finds that efforts to diversify U.S. colleges and universities have been uneven and much slower than expected, despite incremental progress made to increase diversity in higher education institutions. In 2013, 38% of two- and four-year non-profit colleges and universities had student populations that were more diverse than what the study calls the “expected racial/ethnic composition if enrolled at parity” for each institution’s first-year undergraduate class–a calculation based on the demographics of the states from which an institutions enrolls its traditional college-going population (18–24 years old). That rate had risen to just 44% in 2020.

If this rate of change continues, however, it will take almost 70 years for college student populations at U.S. higher ed institutions to reflect the demographics of the nation, and the increase in representation will be driven almost entirely by growth in the number of Latinx students. In that span of time, the study predicts, there would be negligible change in the share of Black and Native American students, which saw little to no growth from 2013 to 2020.

Related: Report calls for greater diversity in college counseling, admissions >

Impediments to racial parity

According to the study, 131 research-intensive institutions have announced diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plans, with 95% of them hiring senior DEI executives and other diversity leaders to share their expertise. However, in 2020, only 98 institutions—representing 9% of four-year institutions and 8% of all enrolled students—had student populations representative of the nation’s racial diversity and a graduation rate among students of color that was the same as the general U.S. undergraduate population. Even in schools where the student populations are as diverse as the expected racial/ethnic composition, students of color are also disproportionately less likely to get a degree.

This slow rate of change is also reflected in the lack of diversity among university faculty. As of 2020, 88% of not-for-profit colleges and universities had full-time faculties that were less diverse than the U.S. population. That number increases to 99% when examining faculty at research-intensive institutions. The report also reveals that it would take more than 1,000 years for faculty at all non-profit institutions to match the demographics of the U.S. population if the status quo remains in place. Research-intensive institutions would never match U.S. demographics at this current rate of change.

“There is this perception that we’ve actually given advantages and made it easier for Black, Hispanic and Latino, and Native American students to get into highly-resourced colleges and universities, and if you’re not of those under-represented groups, you’re at a disadvantage,” Duwain Pinder, one of the authors of the McKinsey and Co. study tells Bloomberg. “But that’s not true.”

Expanding equity goals in higher education

Debra Humphreys, vice president for strategic engagement at the Lumina Foundation, tells The Chronicle of Higher Education that reducing barriers to parity in higher education may include economic reforms like making tuition and housing more affordable. But the more difficult fixes include addressing campus-climate issues, which requires that institutions conduct their own campuswide research.

With over 50% of U.S. high school students predicted to be people of color by 2036, the report suggests five actions—reflect, review, realign, respond, and reform—to improve racial equity on college campuses:

  1. Reflect: Institutions should first consider how they’ve contributed to the creation and continuation of racial inequities.
  2. Review: Schools then need to analyze the ways in which their recruitment practices and cultural norms contribute to the marginalization of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.
  3. Realign: Institutions should reposition resources to increase investment in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals.
  4. Respond: University leaders need to further their diversity aspirations by incorporating DEI goals into their institution’s culture.
  5. Reform: Leaders must also implement sector-wide reforms that address the inequities ingrained in higher education such as wealth-based advantages in admissions.
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