US sector ‘would take 70 years’ to reach diversity goals

Decades or centuries needed if progress continues at its current pace, consultancy firm concludes

July 18, 2022
A tortoise starts to cross a road
Source: iStock

US higher education is moving so slowly on reaching racial equality goals that it will be nearly 70 years before all student populations are representative of the wider communities they serve, a leading consulting firm has concluded.

The path towards ensuring a proportionate ratio among faculty members is even worse, moving at a pace that would take nearly 300 years to complete, according to McKinsey & Company.

The firm advises numerous leading US universities on various aspects of their operations, and it described its analysis as a way of helping their leaders advance their overall equity goals.

THE Campus resource: Decolonising your learning resources: representation matters

Duwain Pinder, a McKinsey partner specialising in higher education and racial equity, said he has found institutional leaders hindered in achieving their equity goals by a basic inability to define what success looks like.

The new analysis is intended to supply that answer, and the numbers are blunt, Mr Pinder said. To measure equitable representation in higher education, McKinsey looked at the first-year student populations at all two-year and four-year non-profit US higher education institutions, and compared their demographics on a weighted-average basis to the populations aged 18 to 25 in states of those students.

By that measure, only 44 per cent of US institutions have student bodies with demographic ratios comparable to the populations of the states they serve. Among the most research-intensive four-year campuses – those with an R1 Carnegie Classification – only 9 per cent of institutions met that benchmark.

University leaders who have seen the results “consider the data stark because it’s different from the way that they’ve been measuring”, Mr Pinder said. “The hope of putting out this paper is to sound the alarm and to say that the trajectory that we’re on is not going to be sufficient.”

Part of the problem, he said, is that universities too often focus on specific areas or methods of improvement – such as institutional reflection, thoughtful data analysis, revised admissions practices or improved research and scholarship policies – but not on all of them.

It is almost universal for institutions to hire a top administrator in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), but it is less common to truly empower the individual to make the changes that are needed, Mr Pinder said.

McKinsey’s analysis did not focus on the treatment of DEI officers, “but I do think the facts do speak for themselves” on the value of such positions without broad institutional support for their work, he said. “It’s fair to question the prior actions that have been taken to this point.”

Higher education leaders expressing frustration at the pace of equity-related improvement also tend to blame US primary and secondary school systems, which are often segregated by race and income, Mr Pinder said. But universities could do more themselves, he said, including putting more high schools on their campuses, partnering with local school districts and expanding academic studies of the problems facing under-resourced communities.

“Higher education’s ability to impact doesn’t just start with freshmen admission,” he said.

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