Level Up: Increasing Diversity in the Higher Education Labor Force

Current trends in Higher Education show that there is uneven progress in increasing diversity in the labor force, particularly in fields such as computing and engineering. Historically marginalized Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) positions compared with number of total workers, according to Pew Research.  

Furthermore, this representational disparity among faculty is more acute in R1 institutions. When McKinsey 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% of not-for-profit institutions were less diverse than the broader bachelor’s degree-attaining population, and 95% of institutions defined as R1 were less diverse.  
McKinsey’s research goes on to state that 88% of not-for-profit colleges and universities have full-time faculties that are less diverse than the 2020 US population. While there are changes in these inequities, 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 has opportunities to address many of these gaps to achieve equitable representation and have indicated that it is a priority. Few institutions, in fact, are racially representative of the country.  

Uncovering workplace bias, especially when it is a long-standing practice rooted in campuses across the country, is the first step to creating change. Many institutions, aware of their bias and the hindrance it has on inclusion and belonging, are developing plans regarding their diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives. For example: 

  • Highly research-intensive (R1) institutions (131 as of 2020) have publicly shared plans or aspirations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). And 95% of R1 institutions also have a senior DEI executive, and diversity leaders in the sector have formed their own consortiums to share expertise. 
  • 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.  However, sector-wide challenges such as declining enrollment, greater public scrutiny—accelerated by the Covid pandemic—and stagnating completion rates can make institutional progress on racial and ethnic equity more complicated. 

CUPA-HR indicates similar challenges in Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). These institutions are federally-recognized colleges and universities that are accredited higher education institutions which enroll a particular percentage of specific undergraduate minority students – 50% of whom must receive need-based assistance. They found the following: 

  • Overall, MSIs have a higher representation of racial/ethnic minorities among tenure-track faculty than do non-MSIs. Tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty at MSIs are comprised of 39% racial/ethnic minorities compared to 22% of non-MSI tenure-track faculty and 19% of non-tenure-track faculty. 
  • Among the minority racial/ethnic groups at MSIs, Native men and women make up only a small proportion of tenure-track faculty (3%), with most minority tenure-track faculty categorized as Asian (7%). White faculty have the greatest representation among tenure-track faculty at MSIs (84%). 
  • Generally, MSIs show a discordance between faculty and student racial/ethnic representation. Whereas racial/ethnic minority students represent the largest proportion of the MSI student population, this is rarely reflected in MSI faculty. In other words, MSI faculty overall are still primarily White and therefore present a faculty-student representation imbalance. Across all MSIs, the proportion of Black and Hispanic/Latinx students is larger than the proportion of Black and Hispanic/Latinx faculty. 

nextSource insights

  • In higher education, attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts is often focused on the student population.  However, students of color show a strong preference for attending a school whose faculty is reflective of its student population. In this period of declining enrollment this subject has become a major strategic and financial issue. 
  • A diverse higher education workforce, especially among faculty, helps attract diverse students. Research suggests that student performance is increased when there is a greater match between student and faculty racial/ethnic characteristics. Students who have educators from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds report greater academic attitudes, motivation, communication, and effort. Furthermore, institutional representation has a positive impact on students and their own notions of leadership and equity.  
  • Highly targeted direct sourcing programs can increase diversity and belonging through community liaison programs and outreach initiatives to professional associations, community organizations, business groups, technology centers, cultural centers, local media, workforce development agencies, training organizations, trade associations offering certifications, and government agencies with diverse memberships. Additionally, direct sourcing programs enable existing candidates a financial incentive to refer like-minded and similar-skilled workers to join the program. By establishing creative strategies for sourcing new talent, higher education institutions can reach a broader market with more diversity while keeping engagement high, resulting in faster reassignment.