ACE Hosts Event, Releases Seminal Report on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education
Published: February 15, 2019

People shook their heads in frustration or nodded in agreement as ACE researchers presented data from their seminal report on the racial and ethnic equity gaps in higher education to a packed room at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday. 

Findings from the 336-page document, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report, affirmed what many in the room have themselves experienced or seen on campuses. For attendee Sharon Fries-Britt of the University of Maryland, the data did present a challenge: “How bold and innovative are we going to be? Because this is unacceptable.”   

Findings from the report show that, overall, while the number of students of color on our nation’s college and university campuses continues to rise, considerable gaps in access, attainment, and debt levels remain. Examining more than 200 indicators drawn from 11 data sources, the report and its release were followed by a call to action from the report’s lead author, ACE Vice President of Research Lorelle Espinosa. “You are here and we are here because race matters," she said to kick off the event. “In order to close equity gaps in higher education, race and ethnicity must be at the center of our work.”

Following her opening remarks, report co-authors, Jonathan M. Turk, ACE associate director of research, Morgan Taylor, ACE senior policy research analyst, and Hollie M. Chessman, ACE research fellow, presented the findings. All of the report’s data as well as additional resources can be explored and downloaded at its accompanying microsite, www.equityinhighered.org.  

Some of the key findings presented include:

  • Over the past 20 years, the U.S. population has become both more educated and more diverse, thanks in large part to a growing Hispanic population enrolling in college.
  • Advances in Black student college enrollment and attainment have been accompanied by some of the lowest persistence rates, high undergraduate dropout rates, high borrowing rates, and large debt burdens among all racial and ethnic groups.
  • There is a lack of good data on outcomes for American Indians or Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders—but what the available data do show is troubling.
  • Differences in race, ethnicity, and gender in where students go to college and what they study signal an uneven playing field in the labor market and a threat to intergenerational upward mobility.
  • Racial and ethnic diversity among college faculty, staff, and administrators still does not reflect that of today’s college students.

The first panel discussed and unpacked the data, while presenting some potential causes for the outcomes. The panel was moderated by Espinosa and featured Sandy Baum, nonresident fellow in the Education Policy Program at the Urban Institute, Ibram Kendi, director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University (DC), and Cecilia Rios-Aguilar, associate dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of California, Los Angeles.

One of the main issues that arose in the discussion was around the problem of student debt burdens and higher enrollment at for-profit institutions among Black students. “The main funding issue we see in the data is that we need to better understand and work on solving the problem of Black student debt,” said Baum.

The panelists were quick to point out that many of these findings are part of larger societal and institutional issues. “We have been taught that something must be wrong with particular racial groups when students struggle, but this data shows that we have to look for the structural reasons why these disparities happen,” said Kendi.

The second panel dove into the most critical issues facing students of color today on our campuses, starting with the arduous task of coming up with solutions.  The discussion was moderated by ACE President Ted Mitchell with guests Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Shaun Harper, executive director for the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, and Julie J. Park, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the University of Maryland.

One of the key themes centered on addressing issues at the top with Mitchell acknowledging that university presidents set the tone.

“Disparities in higher education access and attainment will not change unless the people who are supposed to help close the gaps have been taught how to ‘do racial equity,’" said Harper. 

The convening is available for viewing here.

The report, Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education: A Status Report, was funded with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The release event was presented with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.